How does loss of hearing affect a composer? That’s the question that Melbourne’s ace Flinders Quartet will explore in their concert in the beautiful Utzon Room this month. Many judge the late string quartets of Beethoven to be the greatest products of a single mind, but he never heard them. In 1802, aged only 32, he wrote a heartbreaking letter to his brothers expressing his frustration; it was found after his death in 1827, probably never delivered. (See below.) The Flinders will play the last work he completed, the String Quartet Op. 135 in F major, along with readings from his and other composers’ words. Much conjecture has followed Beethoven’s labelling the final movement with “A difficult resolution” along with the question "Muß es sein?" (Must it be?) and a response: it must be.
Ludwig’s legendary affliction isn’t unique. For several years before his descent into insanity and death in 1884, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana was productive and completely deaf. His first string quartet, chronologically structured as a musical autobiography, will also be supplemented with readings from his explanatory notes: “The long insistent note in the finale... is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness.” The Flinders violinist who will play it, Erica Kennedy, comments: “When you hear that note it reminds you of what he had to go through constantly.”
The third piece on the programme is 'Elegy' by Melbourne keyboard player Calvin Bowman, who has written many works for the Flinders. Its only connection to deafness is that Bowman is losing hearing in one ear. “Calvin’s music is beautifully lyrical and very moving, with gorgeous harmonies,” says Kennedy. She wants to use the word “simple” but first has to explain that despite his innovations in form, late Beethoven is often simpler in expression than his middle period. “It’s that directness that I find in Calvin.” Perhaps deafness, ultimately fosters an urge to connect and be understood.
Ludwig Van Beethoven: The Heiligenstadt Testament
"For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people 'I am deaf.' If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state... My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed."