Smetana and Deafness

Smetana went deaf in the early 1870s, his late 40s, around the time of the composition of his opera, “The Two Widows”. His deafness was the result of syphilitic infection. He composed his greatest work, the orchestral cycle Ma Vlast (Read Wikipedia | Play recording) while being stone deaf. I am frequently asked how a composer can compose when he is deaf.

It isn’t alchemy, it’s training.

Farting around at the piano until you find something appealing, and then writing it down is for amateurs. And by the way, the sort of person who proceeds in this method is likely to write it down inaccurately anyway, given that notation requires training as well. Idiot savants don’t exist in serious music. Leave that for “60 Minutes” segments. Authentic composers ‘hear music in their head”…not just “geniusses”; the good, the bad, and the ugly hear music in their head as well. This isn’t just opinion. It is possible to actually know some things in this world, and this is one of the things I know. I myself need recourse to a piano frequently, and there is no shame in that, although it is sometimes inconvenient.  String players often have better musical ears than pianists, because they have to make their own notes, whereas pianists have the notes ready made. 

I’m not saying that a sensitive and talented person might not come up with an attractive melody or even a song via trial and error at the piano, but on the other hand if a sensitive or talented person cares about his art, he tends to acquire professional skill. You occasionally hear that Pavarotti “couldn’t read notes”. I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it. It is possible, however, that certain popular performers may cultivate an idiot savant persona as a kind of “schtick”. And I know very well that hearing music in one’s head is a talent that manifests itself in different degrees. There’s Mozart, for instance, and then there is everyone else. And of course composers often need a piano for verification or to work out troublesome passages. And a primarily textural composition, such as Ligeti’s Atmospheres, presents unique problems to the inner ear. A composer who can’t pick up the score of a Haydn quartet and hear it is unlikely to be the sort of composer who will compose rewarding music. Maybe this is a hard truth, but there it is.

But if one is born deaf, forget about being a composer, unless you cultivate a style that completely eschews pitch or renders it irrelevant. And there are such styles.  

Who was the philosopher who said, “The tragedy of the world is that the fool knows he is right, while the wise man has doubts”? One of my few memories of that most worthless of times in my life, high school, was an incident in biology class. We had a sour and vain teacher who didn’t care for his subject, or attempt to communicate it. He “phoned it in”, as they say. So I drifted into the habit of reading miniature scores during class, effectively concealing those lovely Eulenberg or Universal editions under cover of the textbook. Teacher caught me at it, and tried to humiliate me by telling the class that I couldn’t really hear it in my head, that I was putting people on. Wrong he was. But then, the fool knows he is right! And to this day I am largely ignorant of biology. So don’t apply to Holdekunst for advice about dissecting frogs. You can save the frog’s legs for me, however, in a parsley flavored butter sauce,  witha glass of cold sweet white wine.

Smetana’s Ma Vlast is not an appreciably different work than it would have been if he had retained his hearing. Except for biographical factors. And sadly, Smetana suffered terrible pain and vertigo from his hearing loss, and the composition of the piece did indeed proceed in fits and starts, because he had to rest frequently from the physical pain composing cost him.