Beethoven: Lessons in Living a Meaningful Life

We have all heard about BManSpirational Beethoveneethoven the composer, who effectively bridged the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras. But just how much do we know about Beethoven the man?

You might be surprised to discover that by the time he wrote the Ninth Symphony, he was completely deaf. Yet, the road to the Ninth—the Ode to Joy—was far from the rosy-red picture we tend to imagine.

In fact, the world came very close to also not having Beethoven’s Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies. Alarmed over his growing deafness and in despair, Beethoven had seriously contemplated suicide. We know this because he had intended to leave in essence a Last Will and Testament—the Heiligenstadt Testament—to his brothers Carl and Johann, written on October 6th, 1802.

In this moving letter, Beethoven addresses his growing despair, severe loneliness, and deep depression stemming from his growing deafness—severe to the point that he contemplated suicide. He suffered from chronic tinnitus, with his hearing showing signs of deterioration as early as 1796, when he was in his mid-twenties. He had tried to initially keep his medical condition a secret, fearful that it will destroy his music career. In Beethoven’s time, composers were sought-after artists, much like modern-day rock stars.

Per his doctor’s advice, he sought refuge in the town of Heiligenstadt, an hour’s ride by carriage from Vienna. Hopeful that the seclusion will help improve his hearing, instead Beethoven soon realized that his condition steadily worsened.

By the time he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, he had already lost 60% of his hearing.

Finding Purpose and a Meaningful Life

The time in Heiligenstadt would be a defining point in his life and later proved fruitful. Towards the end of his letter Beethoven triumphantly turns his life around, saying he has great gifts yet to be bestowed upon the world.

He loved to take long, solitary walks through the forests of Heiligenstadt, finding solace and tranquility. His time spent in Heiligenstadt would later provide the inspiration for his Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. Soon to follow would be his Fifth Symphony (Fate). Beethoven later renumbered his symphonies to the order as we know it today.

Beethoven immersed himself in his art, composing out of spiritual necessity rather than dwelling on negativity. That energy he spent to manifest the beauty that is his music served only to increase his mastery and improved his happiness, for he dedicated himself to a higher purpose. We as humans have a need to dedicate our lives to a higher purpose. For, it is purpose that drives us. It is purpose that motivates us.

It is purpose that moves us.

By the time he started composing the Ninth, he was completely deaf.

The influence of the Ninth proved so compelling to the composers that followed that many felt eclipsed by Beethoven the Composer. It would take Johannes Brahms twenty long years before he finally felt that he could move out from under the shadow of Beethoven the Man to publish his First Symphony.

Even to this day, the Ninth continues to influence the world. For example, the 74-minute capacity of CDs was driven in part by the desire to fit all of Beethoven’s Ninth onto one medium. The Japanese reserve the performance of the Ninth for very special occasions.

Turning Despair Into Meaningful Suffering

We can learn a lot from studying how Beethoven overcame his depression and despair to make ourselves better men. Beethoven chose to give his suffering meaning rather than live in despair, for despair is suffering without meaning. He refused to let his deafness define him. He chose to dedicate himself to a higher purpose and bestow his gifts upon mankind. It is in his suffering, and more importantly, in his triumph over adversity, that defined Beethoven the Man and ultimately Beethoven the Composer.

Writing the Heiligenstadt Testament is akin to journaling. The very act of writing is therapeutic, for it forces us to put our thoughts into a coherent mass on paper. We may have an inkling or a rough idea what that is, but seeing it on paper or stating it in blunt terms to ourselves is often more astonishing. Sometimes all that is needed in the first step towards healing is to figure out exactly what is hurting us.

In our lives, we may have suffering that is at times hard to bear. Even though it may seem perverse to say, they oftentimes provide the defining moments in our lives, shape us into the person we are today, and at times give us purpose in life. Instead of despair, we just have to ask ourselves what meaning we can derive from this suffering. Sometimes, just the act of asking the question is enough to cause us to start taking meaningful and inspired action towards discovering the why behind the what.

As bad as things may seem sometimes, ask yourself this question: Will I be who I am today had I not gone through what I had gone through?

My own experiences, however bad they may have been, have inspired me to become the person I am today.

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  1. Brilliant blog and a very powerful message. I am really pleased to see you suggesting journaling as a way to make your way through the fog. I have worked out many things through writing – very powerful.

    I always think that adversity helps us to become better people. Although we many not feel it at the time.

  2. You get to learn so much by reading about these great artists. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I really liked you overall message! As they say, you learn something new everyday! 😉

  4. Good blog! He was a genius, but troubled at times.

  5. You told the story so beautifully. I knew that Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the 9th Symphony, but not that he had contemplated suicide. It shows that we shouldn’t be overly attached to our outer circumstances, but find our happiness within, as he learned to do.

    • Thanks! It’s something that I myself am learning more and more everyday how to do. It’s surprisingly freeing, too.

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