It was one of those days when I felt unwell. Sometimes it is okay to push on with your work, other days you know it is better to rest. It was the latter for me. I told my boss I was sick, logged out of my work computer and went back to bed.
A few hours later, still in my PJs, I was camped out on the sofa watching TV. I flicked through the channels and came across a documentary about the life of Beethoven. I have a music degree so I have studied his music. But, other than his deafness, I didn’t know much about his life.
The programme was looking at the period when his hearing was failing and he was having to emotionally deal with that. In 1802, when he was only 31 years old, his doctors advised him to leave the hustle, bustle and noise of Vienna and spend a few months in the countryside where he could ‘rest’ his hearing. The hope was that perhaps it would make a recovery. He still had some hearing but was losing certain frequencies of sound.
He went to stay in a place called Heiligenstadt. One day, he had been out walking with a friend. The friend heard the tune of a flute and a shepherd singing, but Beethoven heard nothing. Not noticing the sound of the flute was very distressing to him.
Following that incident he wrote something which became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. Dated 6th October, 1802, it started off as a letter to his brothers, drifted into a suicide note and also spelled out his wishes upon his death.
In it he writes:
“For 6 years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless doctors, 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, even 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.’”
His declining hearing meant that his career as a concert pianist would soon be at an end. As well as the artistic pain of this, it had financial implications as he would lose a chunk of his income. That left him with the scary proposition of earning a living just from his compositions. Neither, Bach, Mozart or Haydn had lived purely on their earnings as a composer.
One could understand how this could bring a person to the brink of suicide. However his desire to continue to write music kept him going:
“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, and so I prolonged this wretched existence …”
Beethoven never sent this letter, nor did he carry out the threat of suicide. Instead he kept the document among his personal papers. On the TV programme, Jan Swafford, who wrote a biography of Beethoven, became very emotional as he talked about the Heiligenstadt Testament. I too found myself crying.
Swafford made the point that this was the beginning of his acceptance that his hearing was disappearing, and there was nothing he could do about it. In the biography, Swafford writes:
“But to suffer without hope, without believing that the suffering has some larger meaning and purpose, requires great courage. For an artist to continue growing and working at the highest level without hope takes still greater courage. Beethoven had something near as much courage as a human can have. From this moment on, without hope and, he feared, without joy, he needed to be heroic just to live and to work. The Heiligenstadt Tetament shows that he understood this with excruciating clarity.”
Why did this make me cry? Although I will never compare myself to the greatness and genius of Beethoven, I do know what it feels like for one’s creative efforts to be thwarted by health. I’m still haunted by the memory, over 30 years ago, of not having sufficient energy to practice enough for my degree recital when I was a music student.
Back in the present time I was feeling ill because of burn out and exhaustion. I was in the middle of a book marketing course and was struggling to do the required amount of work to make the most of the class.
I have often been plagued by fatigue and it tends to rear its head when my creative yearning wants to stride forwards.
In that moment I understood that everyone has weaknesses. We all have something about ourselves that we wish wasn’t so. We curse this for holding us back.
When something can’t be changed, eventually we have to accept this, rather than continue to waste energy by fighting it.
That doesn’t mean that we should roll over and give up. It means that we have to find a way to continue in spite of those circumstances.
Beethoven realised this in the Heiligenstadt testament. Learning about his life helped me to accept what was going on in mine.
Jan Swafford: Beethoven Anguish & Triumph
Now I’d like to hear from you
What is it that holds you back? What is it about your health that makes creativity challenging? How to you manage to carry on with your work in spite of this circumstance?