Musically Speaking: Beethoven’s Ninth

Featuring Jessica A. Holmes, PhD

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Gain insight on Beethoven’s life and music with our talks.  

Please note that this talk is in English only.

Expert Listening: Music and Deafness

Beethoven’s deafness has long captured the imaginations of audiences the world over, a “fate” seemingly at odds with the enduring magnitude of his musical achievements, serving as the true mark of his musical genius. Composed long after Beethoven’s retreat from the public eye and during the most acute period of his hearing loss, the 9th Symphony – his magnum opus – has come to symbolize the composer’s triumph over adversity, nowhere clearer than in the finale’s monumental “Ode to Joy” chorus with its message of hope, love, and unity. Legend has it that following the Symphony’s highly-anticipated premiere, which Beethoven conducted, the soprano soloist signaled for him to turn and face the audience, as he was unable to hear their thunderous applause.

Inspiring as it may be, these familiar stories about Beethoven mistakenly assume that deaf people otherwise live in a world of total silence with a severely limited capacity for understanding music. How, then, did Beethoven listen in the absence of hearing? What types of adjustments and accommodations would he have made to supplement his hearing loss? In this talk, Dr. Jessica Holmes demystifies Beethoven’s deafness through the musical accounts of contemporary deaf musicians and listeners, revealing the multi-sensory contours of all musical experience, and the precarious physiological and social dynamics of so-called “normal” hearing.

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