Beethoven and the Impact Deafness Had on His Piano Compositions


Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most gifted composers and pianist of all time. Beethoven rose to become a hugely influential figure in the transition period of classical music (Classical to Romantic eras). He began to show his love and passion for music at a very tender age. His talent for the piano was instantly realized, and at the age of eight, he made his first public performance. His love for music was inspired by his Father who was a gifted musician and singer. His father wanted to make him advance and become the next whiz. He, however, feared his alcoholic father who berated and abused him when he lacked attentiveness in his attempt to make him the next mosaic.

Beethoven’s Life

In 1787, he was employed as a court musician in Bonn where he studied shortly under Mozart and Haydn. They were two famous composers of the classical period. His relationship with Haydn, however, was shaky. Beethoven was not satisfied with Haydn’s lessons, and he felt that he was an unsystematic teacher and that his assignments were not being correctly marked. He frequently exercised his gift at the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne (Hatten 123). During his early twenties in 1972, Beethoven began to study the art of composition in Vienna. When he moved to Vienna, Beethoven specifically went to perform for Mozart, and fortunately met with Haydn (Bowie 246). Later, he would frequently meet with the two artists at Vienna. He devoted much of his time in Vienna studying Haydn’s works but gained experience as a composer by virtue of being under the watch and leadership of Mozart. Some of his later works showed a great thematic unity with Haydn’s style, and Haydn once famously mentioned him as one of his most celebrated pupils.

As an established composer, Beethoven strived to redefine instrumental music; this was the main reason behind his trademark sonatas which were known to capture the emotion of audiences. In fact, of all the musical genres that Beethoven ever worked on, it is only the piano sonatas that had some consistency throughout his life. His skillful combination of instrumental works would evoke a forceful intensity of feeling combined with an unfathomed perfection of design. He greatly influenced the composers that came after him mainly in the embellishing of the orchestra size (Bowie 249).

Beethoven also exerted a significant influence in the juxtaposing of chords, advancement of programmatic writing, the initiation of the piano concerto and the use of folk elements in the creation of classical music. His mastery of the classical style positioned him strategically to compose in a manner that many views as being ahead of his time. This is the main reason why experts believe that Beethoven was one of the composers who is considered as a bridge in music between the classical and romantic period.

Beethoven’s Early Compositions

Beethoven was greatly influenced by Haydn, Mozart, and Bach who had inspiring pieces of work. The influence can be felt in the (Piano Sonata no.8) which he composed in 1798 as he was still gaining stamina in Vienna. Another incredible piece was the Moonlight Sonata (also known as Piano Sonata no. 14) (Wallace 67) which was published in 1801. Most of the sonatas of the classical period were significantly animated and had an established thematic first movement. However, the Moonlight Sonata brought a new structure and style that was considered remarkable during that period. It gave a rather gentle first movement, a somewhat vivacious second movement and an eventual final movement that was outrightly frenetic (Schindler, Anton, & Donald 65). This deviated from the classical times’ sonatas whose first and last movements were rather fast with the slow movement integrated in-between. Beethoven’s choice of saving the most significant movement for last was utilized here and in other sonatas as well, a style that made him stand out from amongst other composers.

Beethoven’s love for the piano and piano music is evidenced by how he creatively mastered his 32 piano sonatas. The Moonlight Sonata is one example that embodies the creative detail that Beethoven intended to appeal to his audience (Jones, Timothy, & Jones 153). The intrinsic emotions and details he incorporated into each sonata combined with many technical challenges and shows of virtuosity evoke the deepest feelings of the audience. Beethoven performed the Moonlight Sonata using a piano, proving that it is the ideal instrument for simultaneously combining harmony and melody. By doing so, he can create an atmosphere of deep introversion and solitude (Bowie 253). The initial ascents and descents in pitch are instigated in a somewhat restrained manner and using a delicacy which demonstrates the short period when one is lost between consciousness and deep sleep (Wallace 83).

Beethoven’s Deafness

The period in which Beethoven composed Moonlight Sonata falls into what is generally accepted as his “early period” (Wallace 85). Beethoven’s struggle with hearing difficulties made his musical career to be categorized into three distinct periods that reflect the changes and transformations of his music style as influenced by his condition. He wrote his early compositions between the beginnings of 1780 up to the fall of 1801 (Schindler, Anton, & Donald 79).

The middle period commences from 1801 and runs through to about 1814 and finally, his final/mature period runs from 1815 to the year he died (1827). The middle period of his music changed everything as he started sliding into deafness. His music, however, got deeper and louder as he captured powerful emotion in his work. This was classified as his most heroic era. Beethoven’s work was supplemented by more low tones with deeper ranges that he could still hear from afar despite the fact that the tinnitus brought about continuous ringing in his ears. He had to leave his career as a performer due to his hearing problem.

The late period coincided with his final journey to complete deafness. Regardless of his total inability to hear, he composed more complex music which presented technical challenges for virtuoso performers. The grand symphony No.9, Op.125 was the most acclaimed music during that period. During his 50s after he had gone completely deaf, he began having severe gas intestinal distress that left him bedridden. He breathed his last on March 26th, 1827.A comparison of the Moonlight Sonata and the last five sonatas that Beethoven composed before his demise would suggest that two different writers were involved. Beethoven composed his last five sonatas when his hearing loss was most profound. Knittel reported that at one-point Beethoven was utterly deaf (56). It is almost as if Beethoven’s loss of hearing sparked a sense of inventiveness within him that compelled his mastery of composition into advanced levels.

It was later revealed after his death, through one of his letters (popularly known as Heiligenstadt testament) to his brothers, that he was contemplating suicide at some point. The letter showed that his passion and love for musical art is what held him back from committing the act (Knittel 77). This was the main inspiration towards his shifting of gears in his musical prowess to a deeper and profound style of music. The letter reflected his despair over increasing deafness and his desire to overcome his ailments. Beethoven’s sonatas were characterized by short opening movements.  Considering that Beethoven was composing these late sonatas at a time when his productivity was at its lowest, his output became more astonishing under the circumstances.

Pianists point out to this sonata (the Moonlight Sonata) as being most romantic of the thirty-two. The melody employed by Beethoven in this sonata can be described as one which evokes the feeling of escape into an ideal world which may have been inspired by the circumstances that he was undergoing at the time (Hatten 156). Different from the other twenty-seven sonatas that he composed and performed with a full consciousness of the response of the audience as well as the other instruments on stage, the last sonatas were performed by a Beethoven who was more enclosed and only released what he felt inside which is a real picture of his deepest emotions and feelings. Though he at one point gave up on doing live performances to audiences, he continued to compose in the privacy of his home. He cut links almost entirely with society at this time and dedicated his life to composing.

For generations, virtuoso pianists, as well as musical experts, claimed that they could not understand nor interpret the last sonatas owing to their difficulty (Bowie 256). It is not until recently that his last works have come to be appreciated with much being invested in interpreting as well as perform the late sonatas. Some experienced artists have managed to perform and record all Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas including the five last ones that were considered impossible to perform some generations ago. The last sonatas have the characteristics of seducing the audience with its intimate and decreased dramatization. The pieces distinguish themselves with their unique melodic and harmonic synchronization which is a trademark of Beethoven’s compositions (Saccenti, Edoardo, Age, & Wim 142).

In comparison to the Moonlight Sonata which was composed based on the standard model, the last five sonatas differ in several ways. The standard model directs that compositions should be written in three movements. However, the final sonatas seem as if there is a balance between two movements rather than three which was the convention. Beethoven places more emphasis on creating a contrasting juxtaposition of fast and slow, minor and major and soft and loud in the last five sonatas as compared to the Moonlight Sonata which was based more on the first movement’s internal form (Wallace 123). The second movements of the final sonata, which is to some extent balanced with the first, is seen to overly take over a function that is usually assigned to the first movement in the standard model. We would expect a third movement for the final sonatas, as is the case in the Moonlight Sonata. However, the third movement is seen to more or less assume the role of the slow movement (which is fundamentally a preserve of the second movement in the standard model) hence explaining the seeming balance between movements in the final sonatas (Wallace 136). Such deviations from the usual way of composing ended up shaping the future of romantic music style which borrows a lot from Beethoven’s work.


Beethoven’s deafness did not end up impacting his career negatively as most would expect. On the contrary, his deafness opened up a new chapter in his life and music career. Had he not ended up deaf, he would have most likely continued composing using the standards of the classical period. Also, he would not have progressed much in music. Beethoven is a real example of the adage that says, ‘disability is not inability.’



Works Cited

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Knittel, Kay M. “Wagner, deafness, and the reception of Beethoven’s late style.” Journal of the

American Musicological Society 51.1 (1998): 49-82. Retrieved from DOI:


Saccenti, Edoardo, Age K. Smilde, and Wim HM Saris. “Beethoven’s deafness and his three styles.” BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online) 343 (2011). Retrieved from’s_deafness_and_his_three_styles/links/541934810cf2218008bf5437.pdf

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