Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament

Allegretto, Sonata No. 17 L. Beethoven (1770-1827)

“Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley”

Andante R. Lithgow (1605-1666)

In 1802, 32 years old, the inescapable reality of his deafness finally silently crashing in on him (in an era before hearing aids, lip-reading or sign language*), Beethoven wrote a letter to his two brothers:

“Oh, you who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, ever susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others… O I cannot do it; therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live alone, like one who has been banished…”

The letter continues at some length, and the last paragraph or so sounds a lot like a Last Will and Testament. Was he contemplating suicide? We don’t know. Regardless, he chose to press on and compose music instead — like this morning’s prelude, written that same year.


* Lip-reading and sign language as we now know them were in their infancy in Beethoven’s day, being developed in other parts of Europe besides Germany. We have no evidence that those tools were available to Beethoven, which is consistent with how unknown they would have been in Vienna. Instead, Beethoven resorted to notebooks in which others would write their side of the conversation (Beethoven could of course respond verbally). Even though these notebooks only give us the non-Beethoven side of his “conversations”, they are still precious to Beethoven scholars.