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CSI: Beethoven
A panel of scholars, including a Hopkins hearing expert, will dissect why the composer went deaf and how it affected his music.

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Charles Limb holds faculty appointments at both the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the School of Medicine.

As an otologist, a researcher and a musician, Charles Limb is getting the opportunity to apply his unusual combination of skills to one of music history’s most perplexing questions: Why did Beethoven go deaf?

Even more intriguing, how did the loss of his hearing affect Beethoven’s music? Is there a link between the deafness that slowly enshrouded him around the age of 27 and how he wrote music during the remaining three decades of his life?

Limb will bring his medical expertise to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program called “Beethoven: CSI” on Feb. 27 and 28, during which the orchestra will perform excerpts from all nine symphonies and a panel of scholars will discuss Beethoven’s genius, his hearing loss and what may have caused his death in 1827 at the age of 56.

The idea to apply crime scene investigative skills to Beethoven’s life came from Marin Alsop, the orchestra’s new musical director and an avid fan of TV whodunits.  

“I thought about combining theoretical diagnostics along with forensic autopsy reports to gain an understanding of Beethoven’s ailments and mental state,” Alsop says. “There are so many stories about his unpredictable temperament that I thought this exploration could connect us to him in a more personal way. To me, the idea of offering my audiences a personal connection to the creators is paramount.”

Limb, who plays saxaphone and piano and has done extensive neurological research on how deafness affects the brain, has the rare distinction of holding faculty appointments at both the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the School of Medicine. At the National Institutes of Health, he designed projects to address how the brain “allows us to make music, perceive music and imagine music,” recruiting many students from Peabody as subjects for the studies.           

One of the things he discovered was that musicians perceive music differently from nonmusicians and have differences in the anatomy and functional circuitry of the brain.

Using professional jazz pianists as subjects, Limb measured their brain activity during improvisation. He found that “a big portion of the frontal lobe shuts down, and we interpret that deactivation as a way to turn off restrictive impulses in order to promote the flow of novel ideas.”

Limb, who is also a surgeon who performs cochlear implants, says theories abound on Beethoven’s deafness, although the best evidence—his temporal bones—were removed during his autopsy and then disappeared. They were “either sold, lost or destroyed,” Limb says, “so every theory on his hearing loss is really speculative.”

One theory is that he suffered from otosclerosis, an abnormal growth of bone in the inner ear, says Limb, but “the number one theory is that he had some sort of inflammation of the inner ear following a form of meningitis, probably a typhus meningitis that we really don’t see too much of today.”

Beethoven biographers and medical scholars have tracked the history of his deafness meticulously, noting that he first realized that he was losing his hearing by 1798. Although he was able to conduct his Third Symphony’s debut six years later, and continued playing the piano in public as late as 1814, he had begun using ear trumpets by 1812. A few years later, he needed to have friends write their comments to him in “conversation books,” and he apparently could no longer hear speech after 1825.

The impact of increasing deafness on Beethoven’s musical writing is striking, Limb says. Remarkably, his Third Symphony was “the beginning of an outpouring of creativity. He just started composing like mad. The Third Symphony onward was such a fertile, dense compositional period. That symphony was written right after he first noted his hearing loss. He had some urgency about it.

“If you combine the timeline of his hearing loss with the timeline of his compositions, it’s really striking to me. I don’t see how you can ignore that there’s probably a relationship. Here’s this genius composer who has realized that he’s losing his hearing. You can’t imagine anything worse for a musician. Then suddenly he starts composing with new intensity, just brilliant masterwork after masterwork. There was an evolutionary leap in his compositional style and his ability to break musical boundaries.”

Alsop agrees. “The pinnacle of Beethoven’s forward thinking, for me, occurs in his late string quartets. I wonder if they would have been so avant garde had he been able to hear them in real time and space. This complete lack of self-censorship may have been the ultimate artistic liberator.”

Ironically, as Beethoven expanded the symphonic form and changed the ways that people conceived music, he seemed to “care less and less about the public perception” of his compositions, Limb says. “He knew the public at that time wasn’t ready to hear a lot of his works and was at times dismissive” of the audience’s reaction to his compositions.

The music in his head is what mattered.

—Neil A. Grauer



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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