Friday, October 19, 2018

Would Beethoven prefer a modern piano if he had one?

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for The Avid Listener that debunked several myths about Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness. I relied a lot on research and feedback from Robin Wallace from Baylor University, who was then working on a book about the subject, which I mentioned in my promotional blog post. Well, that book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery, was released earlier this month (October 2018). I’m reading it right now, and I’m stunned by all the assumptions he calls into question.

Cover of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery by Robin Wallace
Hearing Beethoven: Marvel as it systematically undermines
every Beethoven myth your music teacher told you!
In Hearing Beethoven, Wallace reexamines how Beethoven’s life and compositions were affected by his gradual loss of hearing, with insight gained from his late wife Barbara’s reported experience with her own deafness. Wallace examines journals, letters, conversation books, old listening devices, composition sketchbooks, and recent scientific developments to put many aspects of Beethoven’s adult life into context. By doing so, he challenges many assumptions and overturns some generally accepted Beethoven lore—which is the kind of work I aspire to!

I was most impressed with the fifth chapter, “The Artifacts of Deafness,” by the way that Wallace shifts the assumed relationship between Beethoven and the contemporaneous developments in piano manufacturing. As he points out, the piano was constantly changing throughout Beethoven’s lifetime, expanding the range of keys, changing the mechanisms to evoke louder sounds, experimenting with materials to ultimately make the instrument bigger and bolder.

Now, doesn’t that seem just ideal for a composer who was gradually losing his hearing? One might even speculate that there’s a reason Beethoven’s style and pianos co-evolved—perhaps piano manufacturers were even influenced by his new piano sonatas, challenged to create instruments to accommodate their idiosyncrasies. After all, didn’t Beethoven once rave at a famous violinist, “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the Spirit seizes me!” I mean, Beethoven, the great innovator, wasn’t constrained by what was, only concerned with what could be! Surely, if he were alive today, he would be impressed by our pianos, finally able to produce the powerful sounds that had only existed in his imagination!

Except…no, probably not.

Even though that paragraph would seem to make sense despite its obvious hyperbole, it’s based on commonly held stereotypes of Beethoven and an inaccurate understanding of how hearing loss can present. The fact that most hearing impairments cannot be overcome by simply making sounds louder may surprise those who do not spend time among people with hearing loss. To that end, despite the stories of Beethoven chopping legs off pianos so he could feel the resonance though the floor (which he never actually did), his deafness led him to seek not loudness but clarity.

In fact, there are several accounts of loud noises causing the composer extreme pain, most famously during Napoleon’s bombardment of Vienna in May 1809. Around then, he started plugging his ears with cotton while playing piano—unfortunately, due to advancements in auditory science, it now seems possible that this coping strategy may have prolonged and even contributed to his deafness, as it didn’t allow his auditory nerves and brain to acclimate and compensate for the sensitivity.

For Wallace’s book, he went beyond the recorded descriptions of Beethoven’s deafness and investigated the many assistive devices the composer used over the years, sorting out which ones Beethoven seemed to prefer and why, and actually listening with the physical objects (as available—in some cases, reproductions had to suffice) to hear the differences. These objects included a wide array of ear trumpets as well as resonators placed in and on various pianos Beethoven owned. Indeed, the devices Beethoven preferred were ones that didn’t amplify sounds indiscriminately, but rather focused on the range of pitches most useful to him, allowing for more clarity and less disruption from background noise—a discovery that corresponded with Barbara’s descriptions of the assistive listening advices she used for conversation and hearing music.

Although we may conjure an image of Beethoven composing at the piano with an ear trumpet, that wasn’t how he worked. For one thing, it’d be a logistical nightmare—he’d have to have at least one hand holding the ear trumpet to his head, and the ones most suited to music were bulky enough to require both hands, rendering the entire exercise futile. Beethoven used his ear trumpets primarily for conversation and listening to music performed by others. For composing, eventually Beethoven used resonators that were like a canopy over the strings of the piano, with a specific shape again devised for clarity more than loudness. Their ability to convey vibration may have been more important than their amplification of the piano’s sound.

While working on Hearing Beethoven, Wallace collaborated with other scholars and musicians on Inside the Hearing Machine, which produced a recording of Beethoven’s final piano sonatas performed by Tom Beghin on a reproduction of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano with a modern-day interpretation of Beethoven’s resonator attached. The website also has an hour-long documentary about the work of this project and some of the results.

Now, about the pianos themselves—I suspect that now, in the twenty-first century, most classical music fans tend to think of instruments in more or less fixed forms. The violin took on its ideal proportions in the seventeenth century, with minimal changes (at least to acoustic models) since. Brass instruments got valves in the nineteenth century, and Boehm patented the key system that most Western concert flutes use in 1847. Any tweaks to these designs tend to concern only makers and players, being esoterica to the audience at large.

Pianos, on the other hand, still come in a variety of forms, and the manufacturing company’s name carries distinct expectations for players even now. And while piano makers are still incorporating new technologies into their pianos, with innovations that not too long ago would have been firmly in the realm of electronic keyboards, classical music concerts still tend toward more conventional, time-tested instrument models that audiences expect to see.

As I mentioned before, the pianos of Beethoven’s era were in constant flux. And even that statement needs some unpacking: although we see now, after the fact, that pianos eventually became louder, more resonant, able to withstand more forceful playing, and so on, this didn’t happen along a single path with a straight trajectory. It would be wrong to think of the modern piano as an inevitable outcome, as that’s another instance of survivorship bias: seeing the ultimate model and looking back only at the path that led to it, oblivious to other possibilities because they are no longer present.

As Beethoven worked, multiple types of pianos existed simultaneously, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the pianos in Vienna (where Beethoven lived and worked) tended to be based on older concepts, whereas England and France were more experimental in their designs. Those in the know could spot how the piano market was trending, but the piano to which we’ve become accustomed was not a forgone conclusion.

It may surprise some people to learn that, although Beethoven tried new versions of pianos as they became available, he was not always on the cutting edge of technology. This information is at odds with the popular image of Beethoven the Hero, freeing himself from Classical conventions to forge the Romantic Era in his image. In some ways, Beethoven’s taste in pianos was downright old fashioned.

In 1803, soon after penning his famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers that expresses his coming to terms with his progressive deafness, Beethoven ordered a French piano from Sébastian Erard. (Tilman Skowroneck debunks the myth that Erard gave the composer the piano as a gift; in truth, Beethoven just never paid the bill. Oh, Ludwig!) At first, Beethoven seemed enamored with the innovations, but almost immediately he started modifying it to try to make it as responsive as a Viennese instrument. Documents suggest increased desperation as Beethoven ordered more modifications, and in the words of Wallace, “The results seem to have been disappointing, and by 1805 his initial enthusiasm for Erard had vanished.” Nevertheless, Wallace points out some features of Beethoven’s compositions from that time that were made possible by the innovations of Erard.

While the dichotomy of “loud vs. responsive” I’ve presented here is simplistic, I think it’s a useful way to break down two different forms of power. There’s a popular portrait of Beethoven conducting his fifth symphony, baton raised high in the air, the other hand balled in a fist, gathering the energy to summon that dramatic opening of four notes produced by the entire orchestra in unison. Beethoven the Powerful, conjuring forces beyond his audiences’ imaginations.

Beethoven conducting from a podium.
Such is the power of FORTISSIMO! But on piano, Beethoven experimented with the quality of sounds, preferring instruments that could respond to subtle nuances of touch. In a letter to German piano maker Andreas Streicher, Beethoven wrote, “The day before yesterday I received your forte-piano, which is really first rate…And I—though you may laugh, I would have to say that it seems too good for me. And why? Because it takes away my freedom of touch.”

Wallace ties this back to Beethoven’s extensive background in improvisation, creating his own music that we will never be able to hear because they belong to the moment and could not be notated for posterity. These experiences, Wallace argues, never really left Beethoven, even after his sense of hearing disappeared. He knew how these sounds felt with his fingers—not just the vibrations of the instrument, but the muscle memory of creating these effects. Hearing Beethoven contains some excerpts from his sonatas that Wallace believes were influenced by these tactile experiences; when Wallace tries them out on Beethoven’s own instruments (or reproductions of them), he relishes the sensory experience that Beethoven might have striven for.

Fundamentally, however, the pianos were changing overall, and even the sensitive pianos of Vienna were trending toward more tension and louder sounds. As to the idea (promoted by—among others—Tia DeNora in 1995) that Beethoven’s experimentation may have influenced piano makers to alter their designs and perhaps shaped the future of the instrument, Wallace is skeptical. The many adjustments Beethoven had made to his pianos indicates that the manufacturers were not designing them specifically for his needs, much less producing a Beethoven-inspired model for other consumers. While our present conception of Beethoven is of someone with such profound influence in the realm of music that people would accommodate his demands, Wallace concludes that, “Beethoven wrote for the instruments he had, not for imagined instruments he hoped would come to be.”

Throughout Hearing Beethoven, Wallace’s research and interpretations provide grounding for a figure we tend to consider in the abstract; Beethoven was not composing masterpieces in some ethereal, infinite imagination free from worldly concerns. Instead, he was a human being—albeit an extraordinarily talented one—who had to adapt to his environment and personal circumstances.

Many thanks to Sam Zerin for his input and to Robin Wallace for his feedback on this post (as well as previous ones!) and his marvelously myth-busting book!

Like what you’ve read?


Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery by Robin Wallace (2018)

Beethoven the Pianist by Tilman Skowroneck (2010)

Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803 by Tia DeNora (1995)

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, thanks. But it doesn't necessarily answer the question, does it? WOULD Beethoven - in fact - have preferred a ~modern~ instrument if he'd had one?