Beethoven’s Ear Trumpets

Beethoven's Ear Trumpets

Contributor: Robert Samuels

Location: Beethoven-Haus Bonn (Bonngasse 24-26, 53111 Bonn)

Description: The deaf composer is perhaps the most perfectly Romantic image of the transcendent genius. His music exists in his thought – his thought is, indeed, entirely musical. But this music exists only in the mind. The composer has no need to hear it in the phenomenal world, because he hears it already, perfectly, with the inner ear of the intellect.

Four hearing aids made for Beethoven in 1813 reside today in the Beethoven museum in Bonn, the city of his birth. They symbolise the most important element of the myth of Beethoven, a myth that was created and cultivated assiduously by the architects of Romanticism. Victor Hugo, no less, commented of Beethoven’s symphonies that ‘these marvels of euphony have sprung from a head whose ear is dead. It is as if we saw a blind god who creates suns’. As physical objects, however, the ear trumpets also testify to the pathos of an individual who today we would describe as having ‘additional needs’ rather than ‘transcendent powers’.

Several other elements of the myth of Beethoven probably stem one way or another from his deafness. His dislike of social interaction, preferring to keep his own solitary company. His apparent unconcern for everyday practical necessities such as clothes or food. His tendency to appear lost in thought, heedless of those around him, not replying when addressed. And more pragmatically, Beethoven’s loss of hearing, which he started to notice in his mid-twenties, forced him to withdraw from his career as a touring virtuoso pianist. As a result, he needed to embrace the new markets for musical works: firstly, pieces that could fill entire programmes of the newly-burgeoning public concerts; this led directly to his concentration on large instrumental works, especially symphonies. Secondly, he needed to secure contracts from music publishers; what the Romantic myth tends to airbrush out of its image of Beethoven are works which betray his reliance on composing for income: money-spinners such as his piano variations on God Save the King and Rule, Britannia, or his arrangements of Scottish folksongs for the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson. Beethoven’s deafness meant that his artistic path was determined by the sordid topic of coin as much as by god-like inspiration.

The extent of Beethoven’s hearing impairment is actually very hard for the historian to assess. Although he began to notice it possibly as early as 1796, he continued to perform in public at least occasionally until 1814, and could understand people speaking loudly and distinctly as late as 1825, two years before his death. Discriminating between sounds, especially speech, in noisy environments, however, clearly became increasingly difficult.

One of the things that makes the ear trumpets most poignant is that they look like musical instruments. The two smaller ones look rather like hunting horns; the larger ones could be new-fangled brass instruments. Beethoven lived at a time when the burgeoning Romantic quest for new sounds included many experiments by instrument makers. The ear trumpets act out in material form a tragic irony: rather than facilitating the emanation of new sounds from the mind of the genius, these brass instruments attempt to funnel sound in the opposite direction, into ears increasingly unable to connect with that mind.

The creator of the ear trumpets is a no less intriguing figure. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel was a musician of some ability, but his brilliance was as an inventor and showman. He loved to engineer effects that would deceive the senses, a defining fascination of the Romantic age. He toured Europe with a chess-playing automaton that defeated Napoleon himself; in this case, the machine was not his own invention (he had bought and refurbished it from its creator), and its creative powers were a sham, relying on the hire of a small and impoverished chess master concealed within it. When Maelzel approached Beethoven in 1813, it was to promote another mechanical marvel: this time, a machine of his own invention, the ‘panharmonicon’, capable of reproducing the sound of an entire symphony orchestra. Not only did Beethoven respond positively to the project, writing a piece to celebrate the recent victory of Wellington over Napoleon’s troops at the battle of Vittoria, but he then expanded it to become a symphony for a regular orchestra. Maelzel acted as impresario, arranging a concert in Vienna in aid of war veterans, in which Beethoven’s ‘Battle’ symphony and Seventh Symphony were both premiered.

At some time when these other projects were under way, Maelzel created the ear trumpets for Beethoven. We do not know whether the devices were commissioned from Maelzel or offered as a gesture of goodwill, and he also invented the musical metronome, a device Beethoven immediately started to use to indicate tempo in his compositions. In both cases, Maelzel’s technology was seeking to enhance rather than deceive the senses.

The relationship with Maelzel did not end well. In 1814, shortly after the charity concert, there was a violent disagreement over what fee Beethoven should be paid when Maelzel took his panharmonicon to London, leading the composer to describe him as ‘low and disloyal’, and quoting him as saying ‘I shit on Vienna!’, clearly a comment Beethoven understood without the aid of an ear trumpet.

Although he described them as ‘very poor’ following the break with Maelzel, Beethoven did use ear trumpets for several years. One of his Viennese publishers kept a silver ear trumpet at their shop for his use when he called in. In letters he describes different sized trumpets to be needed for different acoustic environments, and affirms that Maelzel’s are the best of those he owned. From day to day, however, Beethoven relied on ‘conversation books’ in which people would write down what they wanted to say to him: thousands of leaves of these books exist. In cafes and bars especially, it was clearly the written word, rather than artificially amplified sound, on which Beethoven relied. The ear trumpets seem to testify to an attempt to capture and preserve sound, especially musical sound, even as it dies away; an attempt doomed to failure but to which the artist is dedicated. Ultimately, it is the written trace which survives, and the music that is mute.

Date: 1813

Creator: Johann Nepomuk Maelzel

Subject: Ludwig van Beethoven

Media: Image from the digital archives of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. Images of the individual trumpets also available at this archive.

Media rights: Image publicly available at Alternative image at Bridgeman 114510.

Object type: Hearing aid

Format: Metal (copper?)

Publisher: Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Digital collection record: