To Raise a First at Fate 

How Beethoven conquered fate and made his dreams reality against all expectations



In 1801 Ludwig von Beethoven announced that “I shall seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”


Beethoven had every reason to have reacted differently. It was probably the worst thing that could happen to any composer – and it was happening to him – it was disaster in slow motion. Beethoven was progressively becoming deaf.


At first he just had difficulty hearing certain sounds. But gradually it became worse and worse until he could no longer hear conversations. Yet, even so, a shouting voice would ring with agony in his ears. Soon he had to bite onto a wooden drumstick and hold it against the piano when he was playing in order to sense the sound vibrations.


For years he tried to keep the fact secret from his friends. In public he spoke far too loudly. People did not understand him. They thought him rude and eccentric. And so he retired to the countryside in an effort to escape the maddening crowds.


There he lived a lonely life of solitude within a small circle of friends and servants. For most ordinary men this would have meant the end of a career to a man which Mozart had once predicted would be heard by the whole world. But this was no ordinary man.


In stead of retiring, Beethoven continued. Although driven to depression many times, he was a man who never could bring himself to giving up. In stead of slowing down as he went deaf, Beethoven sped up. In stead of slinking into the growing shadows of insecure mediocrity, he adjusted his style. He became more bold. More dramatic. And his music assumed a flamboyant style that would later be described as heroic.


As if deafness was providing him with freedom from conventional restraint, Beethoven abandoned himself to the composing without restraint. And so he composed his first and only opera – Fidelio – which would continue to be known among the world’s most beloved operas. Extremely difficult to sing, it remains popular to this day.


Now with even less hearing remaining, he went on to compose one of the most famous symphonies of all time – the 5th Symphony – of which nearly every educated person on earth can sing those dramatic and immortal first four notes: “Da-da-da-duhm – da-da-da-duhmmmm.” An opening entry of notes that are famous beyond the expression of words.


Before long the composer who was also a brilliant pianist had to quit playing the piano because he could no longer hear the notes at all. Sometimes he would play far too loudly, and sometimes so softly that the music could not be heard. He was traumatized by this loss, but as before he did not quit. He went on to rock the crowds by designing more symphonies – each one seemingly more dramatic in scope and daring in style.


Finally came the day when Beethoven’s world dissolved into a cold and empty space where no sound at all penetrated. The windows to the sounds of the world of music had finally shut forever. He was now completely deaf. Yet, he continued to hear the music in his mind. And so he wrote it down. Note after note, he scribbled. Dozens of notes became hundres, and hundreds became thousands without number until Beethoven’s scrawl filled pages and pages of music score that laid end-to-end would form a pavement to the stars.


His last great symphony would be his 9th. In the world of his mind where theory was left unbridled by human constraint, Beethoven poured his soul into one last gigantic creation. In this monumental work he broke all the rules. He reversed the long-accepted order and structure of symphonies. He wrote music that was meant for angels—and expected it to be performed by men.


When he was finished, Beethoven took to the stage for the first time in years. Sitting with his back to the crowd, he co-directed one of the boldest symphonies of all time in a world of total silence. But in his mind the world was alive with sound which filled the concert hall, the skies and finally – the entire universe. And he was at one with it all.


The movements of that last great symphony was like the opening of drawers upon drawers. Each containing a compartment full of magical human emotion which he carefully explored and then boldly threw up into the air – catching the notes as they came down and combining them before the eyes of an admiring world into music such as few had ever heard.


He had given it his all. He had dispensed with protocol and brought voices into a symphony. The result was the Ode to Joy which the world has been singing ever since. A song which would become the national anthem of Germany and now also the European Union. Words that Beethoven had been searching to pin to melody for all the years since he was a young man. And now he had found the moment.


When that great symphony came to an end, Beethoven was off in his conducting by several beats. But it didn’t matter. It had been the stangest of symphonies in many ways. For one, this very difficult work had been performed with only one rehersal. But had it gone off well? He could see the orchestra and their faces told it all.


Then somebody stepped forward and slowly turned him around to face a great hall full of smiling, cheering and wildly applauding people. The public did not know he was deaf. All they knew was they had just witnessed one of the most startling moments in history. The admiring crowd was going wild! And then that great man began to cry as he recognized the moment for what it was. He had created magic and it had touched even the hearts of the angels.


Although Beethoven composed a few more pieces after this one, he never completed another symphony. The 9th was his last. Before this great man could run out of notes, he ran out of time on earth.


Sensing that his time was near, he wrote his will. With his quill he scratched the words onto paper which in Latin read: Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over. After that he slipped into a coma.


Ludwig von Beethoven died as he had lived. At 5:45 on March 24th, 1827, amid a raging thunderstorm, Beethoven raised his fist into the air. Then his arm sank lifelessly back without a word. And in this dramatic way died arguably the greatest composer who had ever lived.


I have more than one recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. I listen to them often – always searching for weakness or signs of mistakes by a man who could hear no sound. But there are none. All I can find is wave after wave of ever-deepening mystery. A glorious compilation of sounds too big to have originated from the mind of a mere man. It is a symphony unlike any other. A symphony that defies adequate description even by the most skilled musical critics. But this was to be expected of a man unlike any other.


I think of Beethoven’s life often. Although the story of his life sounds heroic and brave when it is told, it was punctuated by many moments of hopelessness and despair. And many a time not even he believed that he would prevail. As he once wrote, “of course, I am resolved to rise above every obstacle, but how will it be possible?” The truth is that it was possible for him just as it is for anyone else who really believes in overcoming. It is possible for all of us. We just have to believe.


If Beethoven had accepted his disability and the cruelty of his fate, he would have given up at the height of a fairly successful career. But he didn’t. And by continuing he propelled himself into a second, far more successful phase of his career which would inscribe his name in stardom forever.


Not only that, but had he given up, the world would never have known his last five, and best symphonies of all. The treasure trove of the world of music would have been poorer to the amount of many thousands of the most wonderful notes ever heard.


I like Beethoven. He is my kind of man. He lived his life like a storm. He created music that was filled with storm. And even though the world had treated him cruelly, he died with his fist raised to fate. That, to me, seems like a fitting way to bow out of the stage of this world – before entering the next one to everlasting applause.


“Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead”Ludwig von Beethoven in a letter to his brothers.