Remembering Beethoven – a Genius with a Disability By Heike Kuhn

BONN, Apr 29 2020 (IPS) – Do you recognize this man? You do, of course. It is the silhouette of Beethoven, the famous composer and pianist‎, well known all over the world. The year 2020 marks his 250th anniversary and the UN city of Bonn, Germany is very proud of its famous son, born here, next to the river Rhine. The calendar for 2020 shows many festivals, musical events, and exhibitions, attracting tourists and people appreciating classic music from all around the globe. We all immediately recognize his famous Fifth Symphony with the sound known worldwide of ‘da-da-da-daaaa’. As Europeans we honor his Ninth Symphony, this having been chosen as the European anthem.

Whoever is driving through the city of Bonn can see the profile of Beethoven on traffic lights as they turn green. Everyone understands that the message of a green traffic light is “Go ahead, you are free to drive”. For me, seeing the green traffic light connected to the silhouette of Beethoven, I have special reflections I would like to share with you. In a nutshell: Beethoven, being a great composer, becoming slowly deaf, but nevertheless not stopping his composing of masterpieces – a great attitude!

What caused this idea in me? For several years now I have done work in development policy on the rights of persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are the biggest majority in the world as about one billion people are counted as living with a disability, with a rising tendency due to longevity. Today we count 80 per cent of persons with disabilities as inhabitants of developing countries, where life is often much harder for vulnerable groups. Since 2006, persons with disabilities are protected by a special UN treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by 163 countries and the European Union. However, in many places they still have to fight or appeal for their rights. This has to change and all of us have to be part of this cultural alteration – the sooner, the better.

Getting back to Beethoven: His pieces of music are famous, on all continents. His extraordinary musical talent became obvious at an early age and he was intensively taught by his father. Born in 1770 in Bonn, he moved to Vienna at the age of 21, spending the rest of his professional life there. In Vienna, he worked together with Haydn, soon establishing a reputation in the Austrian capital, performing in the salons of the Viennese nobility which offered him financial support. However, when the 19th century started, his hearing began to deteriorate, turning him almost completely deaf by 1814, when he gave up performing and appearing in public.

But his deafness did not prevent him from continuing his work: The famous Ninth Symphony, one of the first examples of a choral symphony, was created by him from 1822 to 1824. This masterpiece is regarded by many musicologists as Beethoven’s greatest work and considered as one of the supreme achievements in the history of western music. The words derive from a poem written by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, the famous “Ode to Joy” with some text additions by the composer himself. This musical masterpiece stands as one of the most often performed symphonies of the world. At an early stage of European integration the Ninth Symphony was chosen as the anthem of Europe. A great choice!

Try imagining – a deaf composer is able to create a symphony this valuable, using nothing else but his existing knowledge of the sound of music and the pure imagination of vocal and instrumental tones. Not allowing deafness to hold up your great talent, but pursuing your way with all your power, creativity and verve, is fantastic!

This is why I have always been impressed by Beethoven. And I am even more impressed these days, when the Ninth Symphony in March 2020 rang out during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Italy, Spain and Germany. Women and men, sang out from their balconies, sending out a signal of hope to the world. The choice of this symphony reminds us, in times of crisis, what is most relevant: fellowship and solidarity. Music acts as an effective remedy against despair and loneliness, to counter the crisis. So put on the music and enjoy, despite everything, playing tribute to a talented deaf composer showing us the way out of desperation, simply by staying active and motivated.

So when the green traffic light appears, just take note of the lesson: Whatever occurs in your life, keep on going ahead, as no disability will ever be strong enough to limit your special talent.