Between 1804 to 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven composed what is probably the world’s most famous piece of music: his Fifth Symphony.
It was first performed in Vienna in 1808 and since then has been a staple in the repertoire of every symphony orchestra in the world. It has been covered many times, from Franz Liszt’s reinterpretation of it as a piano solo, to the rock band Electric Light Orchestra’s incorporation of parts of it in the appropriately named Roll Over Beethoven.
The opening of the First Movement – four short notes followed by a longer one – is in itself an iconic piece of music. Because the symphony is the Fifth, or V in Roman numerals, the symphony was called the Victory Symphony after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s use of the ‘V for victory’ symbol during the Second World War.
By complete coincidence, the opening notes are also the Morse code for the letter ‘V’ and the BBC prefaced its radio broadcasts with these four notes during the war years.
For Beethoven himself, it is claimed that the opening notes were symbolic of Fate knocking at his door. It defies belief that this work, and those that came later, were written while Beethoven was becoming deaf. He could barely hear the higher notes and because of the force with which he needed to hit the piano keys to hear his own work he wrecked several of his pianos.
Now, over 200 years later, the Budapest Danubia Orchestra has found a way to play Beethoven’s music in a way that can be ‘heard’ by those who suffer from the same disability as Beethoven: those who are partially or totally deaf.
Some of the audience ‘hears’ the music as vibrations by putting their hands on the musicians’ instruments. Zsuzsanna Foldi was moved to tears as she sat next to the bass player. She has been deaf since the age of eight months, a result of meningitis, and recalled how her own father would play the double bass as she ‘listened’ to it, her ear pressed to the instrument.
Others hold acoustic balloons which transmit the vibrations or are given super-sensitive hearing aids.
The orchestra is holding a series of concerts for those with hearing disabilities. Mate Hamori, the conductor said: “The idea was somehow to lure those who are most capable of sympathizing with Beethoven and his own suffering into the world of music.”
Beethoven’s housekeeper tells of how, in his later years he would sit at his piano with a pencil in his mouth, the end touching the piano keys so that he could “sense” the music through the vibrations.
Concertgoer Erzsebet Dudas said that before she lost her hearing she would listen to jazz and some classical music but not Beethoven. “Here, when the string instruments all sound that gives a very good vibration,” she explained. “It is not a coincidence that he [Beethoven] wrote this kind of music.”