ENTERTAINING STRATEGIES, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 14 November 1953

The composer in love, the musician enraged, and all that! It is often said that creative inspiration or artistic genius is tempered in the fire of adversity or emotion. Beethoven was deaf, Delius was paralysed (and none too soon), Schumann was mad, and Chopin failed in his love affair with George Sand. Ah, those miserable love affairs! Every composer is credited sooner or later with a symphony written during a grand passion and another symphony born of subsequent disappointment. Well, it’s nonsense. The important things of life are the minutiae—what the butcher said to Mrs. Bach-Busoni, cat-flu in Ravel’s ménage, how Mozart was to deceive his father for the umpteenth time, how Scriabin came to have a tumour on his lip—in fact the little adventures, the little foibles, the pet aversions.

It always seems to me too good to be true that Beethoven was really deaf. Perhaps he was shamming. At any rate, in spite of his deafness he seemed to grow in musical stature with a more reverent public. He was always a business man, and to be talked about for whatever reason may have been a good proposition. It was a cunning plan—for in order to convince people he really was deaf, Beethoven had to pretend he was concealing his deafness. Every time someone spoke he had first to ignore them and then act as if he did not want them to think he had not heard them. Nothing intrigues society more than concealment, so the secret was all round Vienna in a twinkling. Soon the act became habitual and polished. Later the deaf man imported such stage properties as ear-trumpets and conversation-pads. But was he going to all this trouble merely for publicity? Well, I think there was a deeper cause. The likelihood of the deafness being a sham looms larger when one considers the medical aspect of it. Even at his death Beethoven was found to have nothing more than a pustular condition of the eustachian tubes. In his life-time the course of his deafness was by no means level. Many men become deaf by gradual movement of bones due to age, or to a similar structural defect which grows slowly and is irrevocable. Beethoven’s deafness seems to have been like hay-fever—he got it now and then. Sometimes his hearing was better, sometimes it was worse, according to the “deaf” man’s mood. There are the stories of exasperated persons shouting their heads off at the composer, there are others of musicians such as Weber or the young Liszt visiting him and playing the piano to him, and apparently entertaining him thereby. The records are not consistent with a genuine deafness. He retired from the conductorship of his own opera, but told Weber he would attend the first performance of Euryanthe. And it was a wonderful piece of hamming when the composer had to be turned round at the end of first performance of the Choral Symphony, since he was unaware that the audience were applauding him! Unaware, my foot!

But the deeper cause, the situation that precipitated Beethoven’s first decision to feign gradual deafness is quite clear. He was getting more and more involved in romantic adventures, the threads of which were becoming so entangled that it would need something sharper than a sword of Damocles to cut his Gordian painter. His letters to the beloved Teresa probably committed him to marry her. There was only one way out; he must prove his unworthiness. Syphilis! And he must pretend to wish the matter kept confidential. Ah, syphilitic deafness—what a boon! what an artifice! It would be useful in dealing with the servants, with recalcitrant publishers or pupils. One would always have the last word! Conversations ordinarily held behind one’s back would now be incautiously spoken within one’s hearing, in the false security of one’s apparent deafness. What a world of secret information was now opened—both in business disputes and in society intrigues! Deafness for Beethoven must surely have been a social pose, indulged in for its convenience and probably enjoyed.

Other cases come to mind of composers’ fondness for hoaxes or amateur theatricals. Was Schumann really mad? Or did he merely sustain an act to discourage Brahms from making love to Clara? That he landed himself in an asylum was due to mismanagement. And who is to say if Brahms did not wear a false beard?

Tchaikowsky’s offensive pose of misogyny was undoubtedly a move to endear him to Diaghileff. He was all the time secretly married to Madame von Meck and Debussy was very likely one of their children. That would explain why when the adolescent Debussy asked to marry one of Madame von Meck’s daughters he was very properly refused and sent away.

There are many interesting speculations to be made in musical history, and it is only too evident that the stodgier musical historians can be taken in by a solemn likelihood or a bold front. Adversity and love write a symphony? Give me wine, women and song!

Peter Tranchell