Disablity History Month 2014: Disability in Music History

For a discipline dominated by a figure with progressive hearing loss, almost totally deaf by the end of his life, the study of music history is impressively lacking when it comes to thinking about how this and other disabilities affect peoples’ lives and musical experience.*

Beethoven's progressive deafness is widely known.

Beethoven’s progressive deafness is widely known.

“But we do talk about Beethoven’s deafness!” you say.

For sure. But this response is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, it tokenises Beethoven, ignoring the experiences of other disabled composers, performers, listeners, etc. Secondly, it forgets to think about HOW we talk about Beethoven’s deafness, or other peoples’ (dis)abilities.

Now, I’m not a Beethoven specialist, so there may well be people in that field who work against the more widespread idea of Beethoven that I’m about to describe, garnered from the Music History survey courses of my Undergraduate days, and some extra-curricular reading. With people studying his conversation notebooks and such like, I can see that this task could certainly be undertaken. Nevertheless, the details of the composer’s life which are regarded as things which should be known more widely are worth analysis.

The fact is, thinking about Beethoven with the tools and knowledge I’ve been given – and, to reiterate, this is not a specialist’s knowledge – I feel like these tools and this knowledge point to an understanding of Beethoven as being great despite his disability, or by overcoming his disability. Why – progressive hearing impairment and deafness being things which shaped Beethoven’s socialisation and hence his “self” – why not understand them as part of what makes him great?

The whole idea of “greatness” is, of course, also a problem, but one for another time. But we can also consider disability when deconstructing the idea of greatness. In the case of Beethoven, is his progressive hearing loss one of the factors that makes us consider Beethoven great? Would we hold his late works in the same high regard if he hadn’t been deaf when he composed them?

I’ve suggested earlier that, tokenising Beethoven, we ignore the experiences of others. Let’s have a closer look at some more local examples of the ways we silence disabled voices in music history. I’m going to concentrate on the treatment of disability in Laurel Fay’s well-renowned biography of Shostakovich, Shostakovich: a Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Firstly, did you even know that Shostakovich was disabled? It’s simply not something academics have bothered to spend time on. More ink seems to be spilled on where he went on holiday for a few weeks than his numerous months-long stints in hospitals.

In his younger years, Shostakovich was a pianist, playing on concert stages, as well as making a living playing in cinemas. He had to give up the concert stage in the late nineteen fifties, however, when he began to experience weakness in his right hand. This was the beginning of a chronic and progressive condition, an adult form of poliomyelitis, in which his hand aand other limbs became increasingly weak and poorly controlled.


Shostakovich had to give up work as a concert pianist due to polio.

Chapter 15 of the biography, titled “Immortality” is a particularly good example of how we value the voices of different historical actors based on their (dis)ability. Fay begins the chapter with details of Shostakovich’s trip to Kurgan in February 1970 for treatment with a Dr Ilizarov. He made two of these trips that year.

The composer (and the doctor, for that matter) seem to have regarded this treatment as a success. Drawing from a letter Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman after his first round of treatment with Ilizarov, Fay lists some of the activities he was again capable of: ‘Among the achievements he now boasted of were climbing staircases, boarding buses (albeit with difficulty), shaving with his right hand, buttoning buttons, and not losing the spoon on the way to his mouth.’ (p. 265) This is followed by a description of his meeting with a journalist who came to interview him about the results of his treatment: ‘The first words out of the composers mouth were, “I can play the piano again!” At this stage he was able to compose in the mornings and was practicing the piano two or three hours a day, expecting to return home in a couple of weeks.’ (p. 266)

However, Fay does not let her readers share Shostakovich’s joy at being able to return to an activity he so loved (even if not at the concert standard he had previously achieved). Rather, she presents his statements about the success of his treatment as clutching at straws. The paragraph after her mention of the composer’s second round of treatment with Ilizarov, Fay states: ‘Shostakovich clung to the promise of a cure. In late September 1970, he wrote Shaginyan from Kurgan that he expected his strength and capacity for work would soon be completely restored.’ (p.268) She soon dispels his hope: ‘That he was still physically weak, tiring easily when he tried to play the piano, was noted by Litvinova. When he saw Shostakovich in Leningrad in December 1970, Glikman observed that he walked with difficulty and his right hand was as weak as ever.’ (p.268-9)

In essence, Fay is presenting the voices of Litvinova and Glikman as more authoritative than that of Shostakovich himself in assessing the results of his treatment program. She grants those voices she reads as abled a respect which she denies that of the disabled person. And the patronising tone with which she describes the Shostakovich of the time – ‘he tried to play the piano’ – makes it abundantly clear that she expects her reader to do the same.

*I know that my use of the unadorned term “music” to talk about a highly canonised culture dominated by dead, white… men is problematic. I’ve used it in this post for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while a variety of other terms e.g. Western Art Music have been suggested to better delineate what I’m talking about here, each of these also require unpacking, which would make this post much longer. Indeed, said unpacking would probably be longer than the blog’s intended contents i.e. what I did write. Secondly, as this post, particularly in the first half, works towards unpacking this canon, I thought the use of the broad term reflects this to an extent.


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