By Chuck Jakway, Mains'l Vice President of Administration
We work in the field of disabilities. We encounter many people who struggle against barriers caused by these disabilities, barriers that others don’t experience. We’ve met those whose accomplishments, in spite of those barriers, are remarkable. Sometimes we are blessed to celebrate those achievements with the folks we serve. Sometimes we’re not aware of those achievements because of the silent or distant world some of our people live in.
This is the story of one man whose accomplishments were astounding, despite battling against a degenerative condition that cut deep into his profession. That man was Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Beethoven was a German composer born in 1770. Even at an early age it was apparent he was gifted in music. He transferred from a traditional primary school to a school for music. His talents and compositions were well ahead of his time and beyond his years.
Throughout his life he composed many sonatas, concertos and symphonies. His symphonies Numbers 1 through Number 9 remain some of the greatest musical works ever.
In his mid-40s he began to experience deafness. He purposely hid this from his contemporaries, fearful that it might result in an early end to his career. As his hearing worsened he withdrew from social engagements because he could not follow what others were attempting to say to him. He lived a life of isolation and loneliness.
In 1826 at the age of 55, now completely deaf, Beethoven composed his most famous Symphony Number 9, a musical work for a hundred piece orchestra and full choir. This, by itself is remarkable, since Beethoven could not hear the notes he was penning on his musical score. Symphony Number 9 remains one of the most celebrated pieces of classical music yet today.
When he previewed this symphony he conducted a full orchestra and choir before a large audience. That audience had gathered anticipating to hear the work of the greatest maestro of their time. As he did so, little did most know that he could not hear a single note being played or sung. Even more remarkable for a conductor with no hearing was that he was cuing sections of the orchestra without the certainty that his reading of the score was in time with what was being played.
As he completed the fourth and final movement he lowered his baton and continued looking at the orchestra. A dear friend of Beethoven’s ran out to the stage, motioned for his attention and mouthed the words to him, “Maestro, turn around. Look!” As he did he saw that the entire audience was on their feet applauding what was likely the greatest classical piece ever played. That ovation, it is said, lasted for over 20 minutes. This man’s gift fully transcended his disability. A year later, Beethoven died at 56 with everyone now aware of his deafness.
Beethoven was truly gifted, likely a genius. Yet he battled against a disability which took from him the very sense that initially propelled him to greatness. Maybe at a different time he would not have continued composing with the loss of his hearing. Maybe if many more knew of his deafness, he would have been encouraged to retire early.
It’s a reminder of one of our most important values, “All persons are valuable and able to make meaningful contributions.”