Feeling Beethoven

In Susan McClary’s controversial book, Feminine Endings (1991), she semiotically inscribes sex onto musical events. When I read the bit about the violence a certain Beethoven recapitulation wrought on the virtuous ears of his listeners, I snorted. No, Susan. You may have got Madonna right, but not Beethoven. When I got to a certain “violent” part, I heard a deaf man pounding the floor for our attention. I know the gesture. I have done it a hundred times on a hundred floors, to see my little boy’s eyes turn to meet mine.

I have to be careful with the terra sancta of Beethoven. I haven’t delved yet into the literature on Beethoven’s deafness, of which, I’m told, there is quite a lot. I’m almost afraid to. Will they get it right? Will they understand that hearing loss in general is so much more complex than one man’s hearing loss?

I haven’t overcome my reluctance yet, because right now I’m enjoying my private exploration. One thing I’ve been working on is describing a deaf experience of music. There’s a physiological aspect and a cognitive aspect. The former is a bit easier to describe–it’s a matter of noting that as sound waves hit our ear drums, sound waves hit our bodies, and a deaf person is so much more tuned in to that experience without the distraction of auditory hearing. A deaf experience of music is fundamentally embodied hearing. But what is the next step, the cognitive aspect, where our brains make sense of musical sound? That is harder.

I recently taught Beethoven in the music history survey that I’m teaching. I indulged a little and talked about deafness. Since I’ve been concentrating on deafness and music recently for a conference paper, it seemed a pity not to use some of that work in the classroom. I had the students place their hands on their desks, palms open facing down on the desk. I played the opening exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth, loudly. I hadn’t planned on this exercise, it kind of came to me in the moment, and I went with it. So I did the same thing, not knowing what really would happen. The sensation I was left with was the short-short-short-long motive. You know, the germinal motive that ties the whole symphony together? It was always placed in a position of maximum vibration. When I tuned into the vibrations, albeit, in a rudimentary manner, what I felt was short-short-short-long. I don’t want to make critical mistakes of semiotically inscribing deafness into Beethoven’s music, but I did find the experience curious and a little thought-provoking. At some point, I will have to come to terms with the scholarship on Beethoven’s deafness, but for now, I will just feel Beethoven.