But Padel ponders how differently, how separated Beethoven must have felt, despite enjoying the family’s attention. The mother urged her children to leave her young visitor alone when, as Padel puts it, he slipped into “the loneliness she calls Raptus” and his “sullen way of shouldering people”, his “fits of reverie, lost / in a retuning of the balls. “As Padel perceives, Beethoven drifted early into states that anticipated how deafness would increasingly isolate him:
This boy has no idea until he’s thirty
some inflamed moist mixture of labyrinth and cochlea,
thin as a cicada wing, clogs his ears
with a whistling hum, then stick them in the silence.
In “Moonlight Sonata” Padel describes this famous piano work in an imaginative leap as the music of loss – not just of love, but of listening: “Bass clef / high treble only once / and desperate.” For Beethoven this is the new “shocked calm of Is it true?”. Is that “what it sounds like to be deaf?”
In a poem about Beethoven’s five-month stay in Heiligenstadt, Padel tells of her own visit there – with a view of the Danube Canal and the vineyards in the bud – as she follows his steps into a paved courtyard: “God invents curiosity / torture for his favorites. He’s thirty-one. / Fate waved a wrecking ball. “Beethoven has gone to a place“ of zero sum ”, she writes, where“ he must see himself as a victim or a hero ”.
Although he “cannot hear the driving rain”, he outlines a funeral march – a symphony – that will lead him on a new path. In “Eroica”, Padel describes this path in an arresting way:
You’re on the verge of chaos, a jackhammer
Shatter the night and slip past the world’s mourning.
Against anything that can happen
Do experiments for you or for anyone
and the next new key, further and further away.
Most traditional biographers are reluctant to guess how Beethoven’s deafness affected his composing. However, Padel suggests – daring but convincingly – that Beethoven’s isolating deafness contributed to his greatness. “What we forget,” she writes, “makes us what we are” – perhaps for Beethoven, who ultimately contained the actual sound of the music. Describe how she felt when reading the manuscript of the late Op. 131 String quartet, asks Padel: “Does deafness break the chains?”
“Could he,” she writes, “have written that differently?”
Padel knows their story. However, a poet is free to study her subject and explain the notes. And she vividly describes Beethoven’s music, as in her sharp phrases over the sublime slow movement of the Op. 132 String Quartet: “Wolkenschillern”; “Wave shadows like mourning ribbon”; “Quiet as a wreath of sleep / for everyone in mourning.”