Beethoven’s deafness and his Ghost trio
In 1808 Beethoven was 38 and his deafness was well advanced. Maybe I am not the only one who conceived his disability in an idealized way: the Titan of music could slay the demon that made it impossible to hear his own genius. The reality was both more grim and more pathetic. Composer and violinist Louis Spohr was in Beethoven’s house at a rehearsal for Beethoven’s most recent piano trio, one that would be published as Opus 70 no. 1. It would be the seventh of his 10 published piano trios. Spohr recorded in his diary how the rehearsal went:
It was not an enjoyable experience. To begin with, the piano was terribly out of tune, a fact which troubled Beethoven not at all, as he could not hear it. Furthermore, little or nothing remained of the brilliant technique which used to be so admired. In the loud passages the poor deaf man hammered away at the notes smudging whole groups of them, and one lost all sense of the melody unless one could follow the score. I felt deeply moved by the tragedy of it all. Beethoven’s almost continual melancholy was no longer a mystery to me.
Beethoven did not give up public performance altogether for another three years. Perhaps the combination of his loyal friends protecting him and his prickly personality warding off his critics kept him from the knowledge that his playing was unprofessional. Maybe his he did not care what the public thought. At least something of that attitude was necessary to allow him to explore a musical terrain that most of his listeners were uncomfortable with.
The Trio in D he was practicing that night is at the beginning of the later explorations. The two statements in the first two movements are not developed traditionally, one after the other, before they are allowed to interact. Instead, they appear almost simultaneously, something that in the day would seem something like disorder. But Beethoven would continue picking at the rules that governed musical development in Vienna until in the end, in his final quarters, there would be nothing left, or at least nothing that Hadyn would recognize. More startling is the extreme slowness of the middle movement. It is the dirge-tempo that that gave the trio its nickname, “Ghost.” Roger Fiske writes of this movement:
To get even a moderate amount of movement into his music, Beethoven has to resort to large numbers of hemi-demi-semiquavers which give the pages a forbidding appearance. This need not deter the listener, who can here enjoy one of Beethoven’s darkest movements; he is aiming at Gothic gloom on the grandest possible scale and achieving it with tremendous power.”
Hear for yourself in a live performance by Isaac Stern (violin), Emanuel Ax (piano) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello):
The second movement begins around the 6 minute mark.
Quotation from Roger Fiske from Robertson, Alec (ed.), Chamber Music (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1957), p. 102.