In response to my post ‘Lifting the lid off the piano’, one of my readers Michael J McFadden, author of Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains and Tobacconacht – The Antismoking Endgame, asked:

We’re all familiar with Beethoven’s hearing problems, but has there ever been a famous composer who didn’t physically know how or was incapable of playing the piano themselves?

A great question.

There are many classical composers who are considered to be ‘disabled’ through depression or addiction. However, for the purposes of this post, disability is considered on the basis of incapability or difficulty of playing a piano or other instrument.

Gustav Holst

Gustavus Holst was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on September 21, 1874. His father Adolph von Holst was a renowned pianist and his mother Clara was a student of his with whom he fell in love and married. Clara died when Gustavus was eight years old.

Gustav Holst is best known for his magnificent orchestral composition, The Planets, still very popular in Britain today. He wrote it in 1914.

Young Gustavus was a sickly child. His eyesight and chest functions were weak. He also suffered from neuritis, which affected his learning the piano and other musical instruments. His hands were shaky. This prevented him from playing an instrument for any length of time. As a result, he was unable to attend a prestigious conservatory for further training.

However, he did not let his disability overcome his love of music. He persevered and, when he was 17 years old:

He was appointed to play organ and act as a choirmaster at Wyck Rissington. He gave his first official performance with his father at a concert where he played the role of the pianist. The audience of that show called him Gustav which he opted [for] instead of his original name “Gustavus”.

In 1893, he was able to enter the Royal College of Music, with financial help from his father. His first job after graduating in 1898 was with the Carl Rosa Opera Company where he coached and played piano during rehearsals.

In 1900, he wrote a symphony performed to great acclaim in 1902. He married Emily Harrison in 1901. He decided to teach music. After a period spent at a school in south London, the well-known St Paul’s Girls School appointed him Director of Music. He worked there until his death in 1934 of a duodenal ulcer. His funeral was held at Chichester Cathedral on the south coast. Composer Vaughan Williams played Holst’s music during the service.

Holst’s other compositions include:

First Suite in E-flat for Military Band, Second Suite in F for Military Band, I vow to thee, My Country, St. Paul’s Suite, In the Bleak Midwinter, A Choral Fantasia, Two Eastern Pictures, The Wandering Scholar, First Choral Symphony, Ave Maria, A Moorside Suite, In Youth is Pleasure, The Magician and Hammersmith among others.

I vow to thee, My Country and In the Bleak Midwinter are popular hymns to this day.

Today, Holst is still considered as one of England’s greatest composers.

Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt

The late Belgian guitarist Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt (1910 – 1953) also had a hand disability.

He suffered burns to his left hand in a fire, which paralysed his fourth and fifth fingers.

Like Holst, he refused to allow this disability to affect his love of music. He played chords with the index and middle fingers only. This resulted in a new style of music, sometimes called ‘hot jazz’, which attracted the attention of Duke Ellington, with whom he toured in 1946, and Stéphane Grappelli among others.

Whilst Reinhardt was a jazz musician, he is worth including because of his perseverance in overcoming disability. The fire also left his right leg paralysed. Doctors wanted to amputate it, but Reinhardt refused. Within a year he was able to get around with the help of a walking stick.

Allan Pettersson

The late Swedish composer Allan Petterson contracted rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950s.

By 1968, he was housebound. He remained at home until his death in 1980.

Despite severe arthritic pain — and unfriendly neighbours — he continued composing prolifically:

he composed 15 large-scale symphonies which are among the most powerful of the 20th century, along with several imposing concertos of comparable length.

Incredible!

Maurice Ravel

In the midst of a stunning career French composer and arranger Maurice Ravel began experiencing problems with speech, hand co-ordination and memory.

No one is sure what the condition was. Some suggest Ravel had Pick’s Disease. Others say aphasia.

The symptoms began in 1927, much to Ravel’s distress as well as that of his fellow musicians, family and friends. His contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, said:

His final years were cruel, for he was gradually losing his memory and some of his coordinating powers, and he was, of course, quite aware of it.

In 1932, Ravel suffered severe head injuries in a collision. He was a passenger in a taxi.

It is thought that the injuries exacerbated the disorder he already had. With the help of transcribers, he wrote his last piece in 1933, the score for the film Don Quixote.

By 1937, Ravel was in great pain, though socially active. He sought expert help from one of France’s foremost neurosurgeons who operated on him. The surgery appeared to be successful, but within a short period of time, Ravel lapsed into a coma and died in December of that year.

Charles John Stanley

The English composer and musician Charles John Stanley (he later went by ‘John’), lived between 1712 and 1786 and was nearly blind for most of his life.

At the age of two, he struck his head on a marble hearth whilst carrying a china basin.

Despite this, Stanley began studying music at the age of seven. As well as playing the organ and harpsichord he was also an accomplished violinist.

By the age of nine, he was an occasional organist at the Church of All Hallows Bread Street in London. When their regular organist died, the church officials appointed him head organist; Stanley was 11 years old.

At the age of 14, he was appointed head organist at St Andrew’s, Holborn. At 17, he became the youngest person to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford University.

Persistence and hard work — despite near-blindness — paid off from Stanley’s childhood!

In 1734, he became the organist for the Society of the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. He held this appointment until he died in 1786. His assignment also included playing the organ at Temple Church, where he met George Frideric Handel, who used to hear Stanley play frequently. He later directed Handel’s Oratorios, committing them to memory first.

Stanley wrote several compositions, which he played at well-attended venues such as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre.

In 1734, he married Sarah Arlond, whose father was a captain of the East India Company. Sarah’s sister Ann transcribed Stanley’s compositions.

Stanley had an active social life with many influential friends. Amazingly, he was also an avid card player!

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is probably best known for his Messiah and Water Music.

In Britain, we also know his Zadok the Priest which he wrote for George II’s coronation in 1727. It has been part of our coronation services ever since.

This is the best recording I have heard, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to present this in a proper context rather than giving it a gratuitous mention, tempting though that is:

In Britain — including Ireland, then under British rule — Handel was also famous for giving many charity concerts.

In August 1750, Handel was returning to England from a visit to his native Germany. He was a passenger in a carriage involved in a serious accident somewhere between the Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. The following year, he had lost some of his sight in one eye. A London surgeon operated on him, but the procedure seem to worsen his eyesight.

It was during this time that John Stanley (see above) took over directing Handel’s music at concerts.

Handel died in Brook Street in central London in 1759 at the age of 74. He lies buried in Westminster Abbey.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) needs little introduction.

This Baroque composer came from a family of musicians and is one of the greatest of all time.

He spent his entire life in Germany. Most of his appointments were to Lutheran churches. His last major work was Mass in B Minor which he wrote between 1748 and 1749.

That was fortuitous, because in 1749, his health began to decline. Bach began to lose his eyesight. A British eye surgeon travelled to Leipzig to operate on him early in 1750, but the great composer died in July of that year, aged 65. Although the cause of death was stroke and pneumonia, a newspaper at the time noted:

the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation

as the true cause.

After his death, Bach’s music went out of fashion for a time. Some of his family members who were bequeathed his unpublished compositions fell on hard times and had to sell them. The unhappy result was that over 100 cantatas have been lost as well as his St Mark’s Passion.

However, by the end of the 18th century, Bach’s reputation was revived by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn who incorporated some of his techniques in their own work. Beethoven described Bach as the

original father of harmony.

Louis Braille

Although we think of Louis Braille (1809-1852) as being the inventor of the famous reading and writing system for the blind, he was also an accomplished cellist and organist.

A devout Catholic, Braille was the organist at two churches in Paris: Saint-Nicholas-des Champs and Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in the 1830s and 1840s.

He was also highly intelligent and very well educated, more about which in a moment.

Braille’s father had a successful leather and horse tack business. Young Louis loved to play in the workshop. One day, when he was three years old, he tried making holes in leather using an awl. Unfortunately, Louis had his head close to the awl. The tool slipped and struck him in one eye.

As the family lived close to Paris, they were able to take him to a highly respected surgeon for treatment. However, the surgeon said that nothing could be done. Louis’s eye became infected and, in what is known as sympathetic opthalmia, his other eye also was severely affected. The boy was in great pain.

By the age of five, Braille was blind in both eyes.

His parents were undaunted and were determined that Louis live as normal a life as possible.

Louis’s father made him sticks which allowed him to navigate the village. He was even able to study at the local school until he was ten years old. His teachers and the local priests were impressed with Louis’s ability to learn.

Braille was admitted to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth — now the National Institute for Blind Youth — in Paris where he prospered.

He absorbed the school’s entire curriculum and asked to stay on as a teaching assistant. In 1833, he became a full professor there and spent most of the remainder of his life teaching history, geometry and algebra.

As for his reading and writing system, Braille used an awl, the same tool that blinded him! He had largely developed his Braille system by the age of 15 in 1824! French Army Captain Charles Barbier had an influence on Braille when the youngster began using the officer’s method of ‘night writing’ as well as his slate and stylus tools in 1821.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Louis Vierne

French composer and organist Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was born legally blind with congenital cataracts.

Despite that, he was able to attend school locally before he began studying music at the Paris Conservatory.

Vierne had a gift for music from the age of two. A pianist played him a Schubert lullaby and the toddler began tapping at the correct keys afterward.

As an adult, Vierne’s life was marked by divorce and the death of both his brother and son in the Great War.

Nonetheless, he went on to become the principal organist at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. He held the post from 1900 until his death in 1937.

For his compositions, Vierne used huge sheets of paper, enabling him to see the notes he was writing. Wikipedia tells us:

His output for organ includes six organ symphonies, 24 Fantasy Pieces (which includes his famous Carillon de Westminster), and 24 Pieces in Free Style, among other works. There are also several chamber works (sonatas for violin and cello, a piano quintet and a string quartet for example), vocal and choral music, and a Symphony in A minor for orchestra.

Vierne also taught music. His students described him as kind and encouraging.

On the evening of June 2, 1937, Vierne gave his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame. He had finished the first part of the concert playing magnificently, the best ever, according to contemporary accounts of the time.

When he began his closing section, he suddenly lurched forward. He lost consciousness from either a stroke or a heart attack, however, his foot was on the lower ‘E’ pedal of the organ. The sound reverberated around the cathedral for some time.

As shocking as it must have been for the audience, Vierne had achieved his lifelong dream of dying at the console of the organ in Notre-Dame.

Jean Langlais

The style of French organist and composer Jean Langlais (1907-1991) is more contemporary classical.

Much of his canon was comprised of Masses influenced by Gregorian chants as well as polymodal harmonies.

Langlais, as some of the other composers here, went blind in early childhood. Langlais’s malady was glaucoma, which usually afflicts middle-aged and older people. He was only two years old.

Like Louis Braille, Langlais attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. Like Louis Vierne, he progressed to the Paris Conservatory, where he received prizes for organ playing and composition.

After completing his studies, he taught both at the National Institute for Blind Youth and at the Schola Cantorum. His teaching career began in 1961 and ended in 1976.

Most people know of his fame as an organist, however. He was the principal organist at Paris’s Basilica of Saint-Clothilde from 1945 to 1988. He also toured the world, giving concerts and recitals.

Langlais died at the age of 84. His widow, second wife Marie-Louise Jaquet-Langlais, and three children, Janine, Claude and Caroline, survive him.

Beethoven’s deafness

We all know that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was deaf, but how much and when?

He was a prolific composer. His best known compositions comprise:

9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 1 violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. He also composed other chamber music, choral works (including the celebrated Missa solemnis), and songs.

Beethoven’s father Johann was an accomplished musician who began the boy’s musical education. Alas, home life was unhappy, and young Ludwig used to play the piano in an attempt to stop Johann beating his mother.

Beethoven could hear until he reached his 20s, at which time he began to grow increasingly deaf.

When Beethoven died in 1827, his autopsy report stated:

… The ear cartilage is of a huge dimension and an irregular form. The scaphoïde dimple, and above all the auricle, were vast and had one and a half times the usual depth…

By 1796, according to Beethoven’s letters, he began to experience buzzing noises and other abnormal sounds.

By 1801, the composer had lost 60% of his hearing.

He went completely deaf in 1816.

Although doctors have studied his case posthumously, no one has reached a definite cause of deafness. There was no family history of it. Beethoven had no ear problems when growing up. Furthermore, no matter what doctors tried, nothing worked. The deafness continued to progress. This leads some to think that Beethoven had syphilis, although this has not been proven.

Beethoven eventually gave up concerts and recitals. At his last concert in 1824, stage assistants had to turn him around to face the cheering audience.

Nevertheless, he continued to write compositions in private.

Interestingly, he wrote many of his most famous works whilst being completely deaf.

Conclusion

Disabilities are terrible afflictions.

However, the preceding stories should give parents and siblings of the disabled — as well as the disabled themselves — hope for the future.

If men living up to 300 years ago can be successful despite blindness, deafness or hand problems, then, we, too, can encourage the disabled to follow their dreams and do what we can to help.

And, finally …

Thanks, Michael, for the question. I hadn’t realised this would have been such a fascinating and inspiring topic!

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