“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets.” — Beethoven
Would you rather have an easy life or have the strength to endure a difficult one?
In an ideal world, wouldn’t we all go for the former? After all, a life full of happiness is the one that’s devoid of any pain or misery. Put simply, an easy life=happiness.
However, rarely do we get to decide what the next chapter of life beholds. We only get to choose how we improvise, adapt, and overcome all the odds life has stacked against us. And that’s where Bruce Lee’s divine insight comes into the picture:
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
Not just Bruce Lee, but several accomplished people made no safe bets in their quest to succeed. Symbolizing his own persistence through the struggles of life, Robert Frost wrote in 1915: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
And then there was Ludwig van Beethoven, the greatest composer to have ever lived, who quoted in a letter: “For the last three years my hearing has grown steadily weaker . . .”¹
Beethoven’s brilliant body of work needs no introduction. But the sheer genius behind his greatest work — Beethoven’s 9th-Ode To Joy — still remains a mystery. Begun in 1822 and completed in 1824, the symphony is the epitome of musical mastery. And as baffling as it may seem, Beethoven wrote it when he was deaf.
How on earth could someone compose music — that too of this grandiose scale — with no auditory senses?
The Loss of Ability: The Inception of a New Life
The 20s, as they say, are the primes of one’s life. But for the master composer, his 20s marked the inception of a series of tragedies that could ruin his career.
Some say it was lead poisoning. Whereas, others claim it was his habit of immersing his head in cold water that led to his deafness. But as it was back in the 1800s, only little is still known about what caused it. Still, the composer refused to sit on the fence. And instead, continued to perform and compose, keeping his deafness a mere secret.
It did, however, become evident that Beethoven was not who he used to be. As noticed by Composer Louis Spohr: “In forte passages, the poor deaf man pounded on the keys till the strings jangled, and in piano, he played so softly that whole groups of tones were omitted.”²
Or, as Beethoven himself wrote after being weighed down by his circumstances: “But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing…a little more of that and I would have ended my life.”³
Knowing One’s Potential Is Knowing One’s Purpose
Concluding the above confession, he wrote:
“It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing…”³
It’s hard not to wonder if we would still associate “Beethoven” with “greatness” if he had given up. Or, if he had chosen to become a victim of his dire circumstances. But instead of being torn apart, he shifted his focus onto what he could potentially become.
This brings us back to the previously mentioned insight from Bruce Lee. Beethoven learned that life wasn’t getting any easier. And so, he accepted it. Prepared himself for it. And then came back stronger than ever.
It is, perhaps, a mere coincidence that Stephen Hawking, too, was in his 20s when his life reached a major turning point. But his motor neurone disease had nothing on him because he knew he was far from reaching his true potential. Just like Beethoven, Hawking saw an opportunity in adversity.
And after gaining much insight on life, he passed on his golden wisdom to the world by saying: “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Having all the odds against us may seem overbearing at times. However, if only we remember to see a lot more than meets the eye, we can find hidden opportunities in the face of the gravest situations.
Loss of Senses ≠ Loss of Intelligence
Beethoven did not suddenly lose his hearing. It was a slow deterioration towards complete deafness. As his hearing got worse, he came up with innovative ways to “hear” his compositions. He would:
- Sit on his piano.
- Feel the vibration of the soundboard by touching it.
- Place a pencil in his mouth, with its other end touching the soundboard.
- Saw-off the legs of his piano to use the floor as a soundboard.
Creation through innovation
It wasn’t just his methods of creation that changed, but so did his creations. The more his hearing — or lack thereof — disabled him to listen to high notes, the more he used lower notes in his compositions. Moonlight Sonata is an example of this.
“Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation.” — Mahatma Gandhi
During the period described above, Beethoven still held most of his preconceived notions and patterns surrounding music. What kept him going was his urge to resist his circumstances and adapt using his vast knowledge. And so, when one path (high notes) closed on him, he took another (low notes) and that made all the difference.
The man’s drive and persistence through his loss of hearing are inspiring enough. But what happened next was no short being utterly magical.
Creation through imagination
Imagine having deafness coupled with an ever-present ringing sound in your ears. Let alone writing music, it would even hamper one’s ability to think straight. That’s what Beethoven dealt with. Along with the loss of hearing, he had tinnitus, which made it even harder for him to hear music; and later, visualize it when he completely lost his hearing.
All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns. — Bruce Lee
Strangely, instead of holding him back, his complete loss of hearing made him go a step further with his extraordinary ways. His high notes returned⁴, suggesting that he was composing solely through imagination. It is believed that his complete loss of hearing liberated him from the distractions of partial hearing. As a result of which, he reached his true potential.
Final Takeaway: External Limitations Mean Nothing
The ones unversed with Beethoven’s story might claim that his deafness was a cruel joke. It is, after all, quite tragic to think that he never got to “hear” his music. But only when you learn about his awe-inspiring journey, you realize that he heard it all in his head — perhaps, a much better version than us.
Beethoven had external limitations, restricting him from reaching his highest potential. But to him, these limitations meant nothing because they were outweighed by his iron will to keep going.
If one would ask me what I learned from Beethoven life’s story, I’d still have a lot to say. But I’ll sum it up with these five key lessons:
- Our limitations are empowering.
As seen in his early letters, Beethoven wasn’t bereft of the paralyzing fear that comes with life’s setbacks. But that’s when he had a choice to make. He could either let his limitations get the best of him. Or, he could use it as an asset and achieve greatness. It is evident that he went for the latter.
- Life’s purpose is to reach the peak of one’s potential, despite the odds.
“Who am I? Where do I belong? When will I feel fulfilled?” — are questions that we often ask ourselves. They eat us up from the inside-out.
The answer to these lies in the lives of those who clearly mastered the game of life. Stephen Hawking once said that at 21, his expectations from life had fallen to zero. Everything beyond that was a mere bonus. Having “zero expectations” does not imply giving up on life. It just means that one should accept that things may not always go as planned. Once that is out of the way, almost everything is a blessing.
- Greatness isn’t about being the best; it’s about being the best you can be.
Sure, Beethoven’s body of work is no short of being brilliant. But his greatness lies in his struggles and the insurmountable odds he overcame to create that body of work. He is today one of the greatest composers we know. However, he achieved greatness long before the world knew him — on the day he chose not to let his limitations hold him back.
- With no risks, there’s no progress.
There is no such thing as risk-free progress. The day Beethoven decided to make music despite losing his hearing, he took a big risk. Following which, he embraced — or rather mitigated — what he had and found a way to make progress. The keyword here is “mitigated” because although taking risks is vital for growth, it must be backed up with action.
- “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination” — Albert Einstein
Einstein’s insight and Beethoven’s use of his inner ear sum this one up pretty well. Need I say more?
 Ludwig van Beethoven’s letter to physician Franz Wegeler dated 29 June 1801.
 Derek Carew: The Mechanical Muse: The Piano, Pianism and Piano Music.
 Ludwig van Beethoven: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament.
 Edoardo Saccenti: British Medical Journal (BMJ 2011;343:d7589)