The birds chirping, the wind sighing through the trees, or a baby’s cry are sounds most people take for granted. But for people who are deaf, these sounds are missed. For a composer, a loss of hearing is even more devastating.
“It’s a terrible thing,” said composer Richard Einhorn, who lost most of his hearing four years ago. “Deafness separates you from people. It’s a struggle in a real physical way to speak, to participate in conferences, at restaurants, at concerts.”
On Saturday, Musicians of Ma’alwyck will present a concert by composers, including Einhorn, who have suffered profound hearing loss. These include Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Faure and Bedrich Smetana.
Technology steps in
Einhorn, who suffered what is called sudden sensory hearing loss literally overnight, is fortunate that when he wants to compose, today’s technology is there to help.
“Composers work in the imagination. A computer can simulate any sound of any instrument,” he said. “If I only had to work on a piano, I might have issues.”
So with the help of hearing aids and a custom-built earphone, Einhorn can use a computer to compose for up to four hours a day. Violinist Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz and pianist Starr Norman will give the world premiere of the first movement of Einhorn’s Etude, and Norman will perform his Etude for solo piano.
Musicians of Ma’alwyck
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: First Reformed Church, 8 N. Church St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $25, $10
MORE INFO: 377-3623, www.musiciansofmaalwyck.org
Beethoven, on the other hand, didn’t have computers.
“I would not know what to do if I’d had his problems,” Einhorn said. “I would have given up.”
Beethoven (1770-1827) was in his late 20s when he first began having hearing problems. By 1802, he wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament in which he says that only his art kept him from ending his life. His deafness became marked over the decades, but Beethoven had the skill of being able to write in his head, Einhorn said. Still, he had tricks to help him hear.
“He’d saw off the legs of his piano to use the floor as sounding boards,” Einhorn said. “Or he had several ear trumpets made. I’ve tried them and they are surprisingly good.”
Cellist Petia Kassarova and Norman will perform the third movement from Beethoven’s Cello Sonata of 1801.
Beethoven’s deafness was well known to his friends and public, but Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) tried to keep his hearing problems a secret for almost a decade with only his wife knowing, said Barker Schwartz, who read several of Faure’s letters to his wife from a special compilation published in 1951.
“He was afraid that his deafness would attack his credibility as a composer,” she said.
Faure was already in his late 50s and may have concealed his hearing problems initially, but it did not stop him. He began an 18-year career as the music critic for Le Figaro, became the director of the Paris Conservatory where he served for 15 years, and only in 1909 at age 64 did he publicly acknowledged his deafness as “a veritable cacophony” (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001). Besides pitch distortion, he heard high sounds a third interval lower and low sounds a third interval higher.
Yet, he continued to compose piano works, song cycles, lyric dramas, string sonatas and his only string quartet, and revised editions of works by Schumann and Bach. His Piano Trio of 1922, which MOM will perform, is considered a masterpiece.
While the cause of Beethoven’s deafness was considered a mystery and Faure’s was thought to be age-related, Bedrich Smetana’s deafness was a secondary symptom of syphilis. In the summer of 1874 at age 50, Smetana suddenly started hearing buzzing and extraneous noises. Soon he could not hear individual sounds. By October, he had lost the hearing in both ears and used an ear trumpet to try to hear, Barker Schwartz said.
Deafness did not crush Smetana’s spirit. Though he was already known as a great Czech nationalist composer, his greatest works were still before him. Although he had to quit his job as conductor at Prague’s Provisional Theater that same year, Smetana went on to write song cycles, three more operas, symphonic cycles, a string quartet, and even to play piano publicly until 1881, Barker Schwartz said. She will perform his violin pieces “From My Homeland” of 1882.
Today’s technology has changed the world, especially for deaf composers. If they are in a theater such as Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre or in several theaters in New York City that have installed hearing loops, which are part of amplification technology, they can hear for the first time real instruments play what they have written.
“A flip of a switch on the hearing aid and you can hear what’s on stage,” Einhorn said. “These theaters are pioneers.”