Written by Mathilde Hunt, Edited by Grace Vickers
Deafness is frequently considered as a communication barrier, and indeed Raymond Antrobus, winner of the 2019 Ted Hughes award for New Work in Poetry, states that “People approach deafness as something they can’t communicate with'.
The Barbicans 'Music and Deafness Panel Discussion' however, demonstrates the falsity behind this assumption in celebration of Beethoven's life and works on the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Through a recording of the Heiligenstadt testament and a letter from Beethoven to his brothers in 1802, the composer was fleshed out before me. A man driven by artistic creation, but ashamed and frustrated by the worsening loss of hearing which seemed to render his compositions fraudulent. He isolated himself and contemplated suicide, but decided that for his art he must live on, to create predestined pieces and influence our musical landscape of dramatically. But did his deafness indeed influence his music? Paul Whittaker, OBE and founder of the charity “Music and the Deaf”, says: “He’d learnt his craft so well he didn’t need to hear”. Siobhan Clough, violinist and founding member of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Resound, argued that his deafness did influence his compositions: higher notes, for example, which people with hearing impediments often find harder to perceive, are usually absent from his music.
Our panel guests, Raymond and Paul, spoke further about hearing through deafness, stating it provides a different appraisal for language. Lloyd Coleman, musician and Associate Music Director of Paraorchestra, recalled how hearing music in his childhood was much easier than understanding speech, which Raymond identified with. Paul went on to explain how his deafness had enhanced his visual intake of information and humorously recalled his university professor lauding him as his best student because of his deafness.
The panel brought light to the way in which we can participate in and appreciate music in unexpected ways, enriching our experience of sound in itself, and enhancing our consideration of the way we listen.
Paul would be signing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 later that day and, when asked what the difference was between signing normal BSL, and signing music, he stated the main challenge was working out a storyline that would make a piece both musical and intelligible. He emphasised the physicality of sound, posing an open question as to whether we react to the movement of 'a jump' or its subsequent 'thud'.
To conclude the session, Raymond performed two poems commissioned for the event. These were about the mixed-race violinist, George Polegreen Bridgetower, who collaborated with Beethoven on his Ninth Violin Sonata (Op 47), but was uncredited after the two fell out over an “unnamed woman”. Beethoven kept his deafness hidden for a great period of his life, and one of Raymond’s poems is entitled: “George Polegreen Bridgetower remembers realising Beethoven was deaf”. Indeed, Beethoven expressed his struggle through deafness and solitude through his music, which testifies for his poignant symphonies. In melodies that recur over and over again in a myriad of spheres, we see a beautifully communicated reflection of humanity. In the words of a breathless Lars Vogt, “Beethoven is liberation. He is the composer of bringing people together."