Incessant Hum Explores Beethoven's Deafness and Music

From left: Beth Vanderborg, Barbara Hamilton, John Fadial, Paul Primus.
From left: Beth Vanderborg, Barbara Hamilton, John Fadial, Paul Primus. Willie Petersen
Beethoven’s 250th birthday is being celebrated all over the world this year. Collaborating with some of the area’s most creative spirits, the Colorado Chamber Players have come up with an original work to honor him. Titled Incessant Hum and combining theater and music, the evening focuses on the great composer’s deafness and the works he produced — despite bouts of terrible despair — after becoming afflicted in his mid-forties.

Artistic director Barbara Hamilton enlisted playwright Jeffrey Neuman, whose own hearing is severely impaired, to write a script, and actor-director Mare Trevathan — winner of three Best of Denver awards from Westword — to direct. Actor Chris Kendall plays Beethoven, and Chelsea Frye is Elise, the young woman who comforts him and encourages his art: She is named for "Für Elise" (aka "Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor"), the lyrical, haunting solo known to almost every beginning piano student.

This kind of work is not entirely new for the chamber players, now in their 26th season. The company has commissioned composer portrait/chamber music hybrids for Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich over the years.

For all the artists involved, the work on Incessant Hum was both challenging and revelatory. Westword spoke to both Hamilton and Neuman about what they discovered.

Westword: Can you describe how this project got started and how it evolved?

Jeffrey Neuman: I have to credit the entire project to Barbara, who came up with the idea to do a performance piece that explores Beethoven’s deafness and his relationship with art through the lens of his hearing loss. She even came up with the beautiful and evocative title of the piece, Incessant Hum. When she first concretized the idea of doing a piece solely using Beethoven’s later works, all of which he wrote when he was deaf, she reached out to Mare, a friend and frequent collaborator. Mare, in turn, recommended me as, perhaps, an ideal playwriting partner given my own struggles with hearing loss and tinnitus.

In late spring 2019, the three of us got together to discuss the piece, and it was clear, from the very start, that we would make a great team and that we could collaborate in a dynamic, respectful and synergistic way. Over the next few months, we would meet regularly to discuss the shape and feel of the piece and to flesh out how we would realize it in performance.

Though we knew we wanted to explore the themes of loss and resilience and that we wanted the play to be grounded in Beethoven’s own words, it wasn’t until Mare led us through a Viewpoints exercise that the narrative engine revealed itself to me. Viewpoints is an improvisational system that asks an actor to use their body in time and space to create meaning. It is composed of spontaneous interactions between actors and often introduces external stimuli — props, music, bits of dialogue — that can be useful for heightening both your senses and your sense of play.

I’d never been through a Viewpoints exercise before, and I found it to be an extraordinary experience. Mare assembled five actors who gave of themselves so generously, playing in real space and in real time with one another as Mare layered in some of Beethoven’s music, audio clips of tinnitus, and choice phrases from the composer’s personal correspondences. The results were beautiful and heartbreaking, hysterical and tragic. I left the exercise bursting with ideas and ran home, where I wrote a précis and a good deal of the script in one sitting. My idea was to do a play with two characters — Beethoven and a shadowy woman (perhaps his Immortal Beloved?) — and the action would unfold in a highly theatricalized epistolary form.

I took the précis to Barbara and Mare, and they were excited and supportive. They gave me license to go with my instincts, so I did.

Barbara Hamilton: Many groups are celebrating Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with performances of all of his quartets, for example, or with the Missa Solemnis or symphonies. For the Colorado Chamber Players, the chance to delve into Beethoven’s emotional world after he lost his hearing was the most meaningful.

What was the hardest part of all this for you?

Neuman: When I was approached about writing the script, I was both excited and scared — excited because I'd always wanted to work on a piece with music, but scared because it was so far afield from the type of writing I'd done before. It was also incredibly daunting to tackle the subject matter, because I wanted to serve Beethoven well — both the music and the man — and because I'd never really written about hearing loss, a subject that seemed a bit too close to home given the fact that I'm still navigating my own feelings toward it, having been diagnosed as profoundly hard of hearing about fifteen years ago.

Hamilton: Arriving at a good balance between how much of Beethoven’s actual music to play, and Jeff’s wonderful script.

What was the most surprising part of the process?

Neuman: I think the thing that surprised me most is how fascinated I became with Beethoven’s letters. Beethoven was very unsure of himself when he expressed himself in writing. He was incredibly commanding as a composer; as a writer, though, he was flawed, insecure, conflicted, contradictory, and uncertain of how to voice his innermost thoughts. Despite this, he was a fervid letter writer, and those letters became an integral part of this project, because they gave me such a keen sense of who he was as a person.

"The Heiligenstadt Testament," one of Beethoven's most well-known letters and one of the only ones in which he openly discusses his hearing loss, is actually used verbatim in several parts of the script. It is such a beautiful and eloquent expression of an artist on the verge of despair, one who is driven to the brink of ending it all, but realizes that, if for no other reason, he should carry on because of his art. Commitment to art was, in many ways, his saving grace. Anytime I needed a polestar to figure out what to write for this script, I would turn to these words: “I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence — truly wretched for so susceptible a body, which can be thrown by a sudden change from the best condition to the very worst.

Hamilton: Realizing how miserable Beethoven was for most of his later life from his physical ailments, and yet seeing — and hearing — the misery transformed into great art.

And the most satisfying part?

Neuman: Playwriting can be a very solitary endeavor; I don’t usually get the chance to develop a script in conjunction with any partners, let alone a thoughtful and talented director like Mare and a passionate and intelligent musician like Barbara. It was pure joy to work with these consummate artists while engaging with some of the most beautiful and powerful music ever written.

We now know from the work of neurologists how powerfully music affects the brain, even to some extent changing it, while the brain, of course, is key to how we hear and interpret music. All of which makes the topic of deafness and music profoundly fascinating. Can you tell me, Jeff, how you hear — if "hear" is the right word — music? And speculate on how Beethoven heard it, insofar as he did?

Neuman: I know I’m supposed to be a writer of some sort, but I don’t know if I can summon the right words to describe how I “hear” music. I will say that I’m incredibly lucky to live in the digital age, where we have hearing-aid technology that enables me, I believe, to experience music in almost the way it was meant to be heard. Even with my hearing aids, though, I cannot hear certain pitches, tones and instruments, and I struggle to keep up with lyrics, quite often losing the thread of them. Without hearing aids, it’s much murkier and harder to describe. It puts me in mind of a park I lived about a mile away from when I was growing up in upstate New York. There were often concerts in the park, and if you sat on the front porch of my house on concert nights, you could almost hear the music from the park. You could generally hear the percussive beat of whatever was playing; you could sometimes hear the blare of horns; and, every now and then, you could make out a high, sustained note from an ambitious and ample-lunged vocalist. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, without hearing aids, music sounds distant and gossamer to me, like a phantom scent that you can sort of place but can’t name.

I don’t know if I can speculate on how Beethoven himself heard music. I think every deaf and hard-of-hearing person has her/his own unique experience with both sound and silence. I will say, though, that it’s equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking to look at the many ways Beethoven tried to hear and connect with his music. Between ear trumpets and hooded pianos, he did EVERYTHING he could to not only feel, but to hear the music he was creating.

Hamilton: I am fascinated by how Beethoven managed to compose after he lost his hearing, without being able to hear much external sound. Beethoven had exceptional musical training as a young man and had a highly developed inner ear, so that was part of his ability to “hear” or imagine music in his head after going deaf. He had a crisis as a young man, when he wrote "The Heiligenstadt Testament," when he realized his hearing was never going to be restored. What I find extraordinary was Beethoven’s ability to rise above his loss and grief over his deafness and create some of the most sublime and original music ever written. In a way, his most unique compositions were written after he was deaf.

Did the writers and musicians gain new insights from each other in putting this piece together?

Hamilton: The script Jeff wrote was very inspiring to all of the musicians. We are much more aware of Beethoven’s emotional state as it related to specific pieces. For example, the Op. 95 String Quartet is full of defiance and suppressed rage, as though Beethoven was shaking his fist at his fate. "The Ode to Joy" from the Ninth Symphony is so much more meaningful knowing that the composer could not hear a single note of it externally while he conducted the premiere. But as with many deaf and hard-of-hearing people, he must have felt the vibrations around him and still experienced it in a powerful way. Some of our performances this week are specifically for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, and we are finding ways to make the music more accessible. There will be an ASL interpreter in Boulder; we will let K-5 hearing-impaired kids in Broomfield put their hands and feet on our instruments; and a recording engineer at the Broomfield Auditorium is working with Hearing Loss Association of America members to provide assistive listening devices.

What do you want the audience to take away from the performance?

Neuman: I think the most important thing is that Ludwig van Beethoven was a man. Yes, he was a genius, but he was human, not superhuman. He was able to continue to write after he lost his hearing because he was a consummate craftsman, a studious composer, and because he worked goddamned hard to perfect his relationship with what he did best. I think people forget that about him. He’s been so beatified in some ways that we forget he was a man who was so committed to his art that he would not let anything — anything take it away from him.

More than anything, though, I hope people walk away from the play with a sense of how resilient and resourceful we are as human beings, as well as with a deeper understanding that fear and loss are not only a part of the human condition, but can even be stepping stones to some of our greatest achievements.

Incessant Hum takes place at 7:30 p.m. January 14, at the Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield, $15-$18; at 6:30 p.m. January 18, at Opus Town Hall, 9167 Davidson Way, Lafayette (tickets are $45-$80); and at 2 p.m. January 19, at Boulder Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Avenue, in Boulder; that performance is free. For tickets and more information, go to the Colorado Chamber Players website.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman