An ear tuned to misery
Radio 3 round-up: Nicholas Williams is alarmed by a focus on tinnitus and heartened by the achievements and legacy of its most famous victim
Friday 01 March 1996
Electronic replicas of the tinnitus phenomenon, including sinister heartbeats and the crackle the TV makes without an aerial, showed the bitter truth of the illness as heard by an estimated tenth of the nation. Experts explained how white noise and cognitive therapy are working wonders. Even so, the most common antidote remains old-fashioned stoicism. What can't be cured must be endured. But with extreme cases resulting in mental breakdown, a remedy is urgently required. Thank heavens we can talk about it now. And if the many who are denied the right to silence feel they're no longer alone, then this spotlight has been public money very well spent.
How the world's most famous aurally challenged composer coped both with tinnitus and general hearing loss is the stuff of legend. But in the context of the week's vivid testimonies, the standard reading from the Heiligenstadt Testament in Beethoven's Medical Notes held more than its usual poignancy. Michael Oliver unpicked the gaudy guilt of Romantic myth to show the actual squalor of Beethoven's physical decline. A modern specialist in composers' illnesses ("B minor rots the pancreas, my dear Ludwig") unlocked the deathbed's unsanitory secrets and most harrowing of all, described the ear infections caused by hearing aids plunged recklessly within the auditory canal. Barry Cooper, who completed the Tenth Symphony, rightly avoided making precise links between misery and art, though we may sense a redemptive force in every note. No misery, no great music? It's an appalling equation. A Viennese doctor prescribed champagne, which proved good for counterpoint but deadly for cirrhosis.
Champagne excepted, this programme put you off many things, ear trumpets in particular. It's unlikely that even with hearing the composer encountered Gossec's Messe des Morts, so the grandly Beethovenian sense of slowly unfolding depth in its Introit must be attributed to something in the air: a humanist choral style, perhaps, that also influenced Cherubini and Berlioz. Featured in Wednesday's Composer of the Week: "Paris before and after the French Revolution", it seemed exceptional beside the limping pomposity of Mehul's Hymn to Reason and some rather noisy organ pieces. Still, there was a vulgar sense of place and occasion about these works that was sadly lacking in the royalist symphonies heard on Monday. Like many a modern autocrat, Robespierre thought music an essential part of public education; that is, pure propaganda. Plus ca change.
The tedious Sunday hours between teatime and dinner were nicely filled in by Jonathan Dobson's The Legacy of Liszt. A composer who's revived periodically, he lightened a weary old age by sipping absinthe (recently invented) and gathering around him a large surrogate family of international pupils. To teach them all, he invented the masterclass, and the ideal Liszt style they inherited - elegant yet unfoppy - was heard in the recorded playing of Moriz Rosenthal. In pianist Frederick Lamond's 1944 radio memoires of his study with the Wotan of Weimar, the phrase about talking with the man who as a child had received benediction from the mighty Beethoven was a cliche whose hour, or week, had come. As speech rang down the centuries, not only the poor man's sufferings but also his heroic endurance gained a new dimension of reality. Were the dreaded tinnitus ever to strike, I might find such a thought mildly inspiring.
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