An Altar to Apollo



When Beethoven received a Broadwood piano, he did not quite know what to do with it. To Thomas Broadwood he had promised to treat the piano as an “altar to Apollo,”[1] but when the instrument arrived, he wrote one of his craziest pieces ever: the Fugue of his “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Opus 106, which is more wildly Dionysian than serenely Apollonian. But a few years later, in his three last piano sonatas, Opus 109, 110, and 111, Beethoven seemed determined to also explore the poetic side of his English piano. By this time, however, his hearing had declined considerably. An idea was hatched for the construction of a hearing machine, customized to go on top of his Broadwood. “You will hear even the softest of sounds,” André Stein confidently predicted.[2] Was there justice for Apollo after all?

That, in a nutshell, is the premise for this new recording. I perform Beethoven’s three last piano sonatas on a new replica of Beethoven’s Broadwood that has been outfitted with a modern-day interpretation of Beethoven’s hearing machine, the original of which is no longer extant. Instrument represents inspiration. In the same letter to London, Beethoven professed: “I will send you the fruits of inspiration from the first moments that I’ll have with the instrument.”[3] Hearing machine, however, implies struggle. We have long accepted struggle as a keyword to understand late-Beethoven’s compositional practices. We have consistently and conveniently used Beethoven’s late-life severe deafness to turn him into some philosopher of music whose musical thought emanated from within, without any sensory or technological distraction. But what if inspiration and physical struggle are not at odds with one another, but in fact inextricably linked? What if we could reconstruct not only the instrument Beethoven played, but also the machine designed to allow him to hear it? Might the combination of both reveal all the more concrete clues for performing, listening to, and understanding his music?

This recording, itself an amalgam of paradoxes shaped by twenty-first-century acoustical, technological, and artistic research, gives Beethoven’s disability a central place for the experience of a trilogy of works that in Western consciousness has been understood as visionary, transcendental, or even a-instrumental. What happens when we adopt a newly built, optimally functioning specimen of his instrument as a tool for artistic re-creation? And what happens when we accept Beethoven’s hearing problems as a modus operandi for interacting with this English piano? These are the questions with which we approached the recording.

I must thank Chris Maene not only for his inexhaustible craftsmanship, but also for the initial suggestion that he build a replica of Beethoven’s Broadwood. Having Chris’s constructed copy at our disposal has opened an important new chapter in Beethoven research and performance. It was at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, that I met Robin Wallace, who told me about his forthcoming book on Beethoven’s deafness, in which he offers an intriguing double perspective: his personal experience of living with a music-loving partner who lost her hearing, and the perspective of a longtime Beethoven scholar with impressive knowledge and integrity. I told him about my ongoing experiences with the Beethoven Broadwood (my enthusiasm back then must have been with the vibrational potential of the instrument, which I felt to be greatly superior to that of Viennese pianos), and the subject quickly turned to the hearing machine. We discovered a mutual interest and excitement in having some version of it reconstructed. This led me to Thomas Wulfrank, acoustical engineer at Kahle Acoustics in Brussels, Belgium, who managed the construction of our hearing machine.

A few months later, we were experimenting with several versions of a hearing device in collaboration with Pianos Maene in Ruiselede, Belgium. But this was also to be artistic research with relevance for performing and recording, and for the latter I found allies in my colleague and Tonmeister Martha de Francisco at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) and sound engineer Steven Maes from MotorMusic (Mechelen, Belgium). Perhaps ironically in light of our psychoacoustic premise, but so fitting for the larger artistic goals of the project, we are now offering our sonic results through MQA-enhanced digital technology: Beethoven’s Broadwood has never sounded so crystal clear, yet so rambunctious in the after-ring of its overtones. There’s so much sonic energy—so much vibrational life.

The research for this unique recording was conducted at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium, as part of the research cluster Declassifying the Classics, of which I am principal investigator. Financial support came from the Fund Baillet Latour (Belgium) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). CIRMMT (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, in Montreal, Canada) acted as a partnering research center.

We keep being fascinated by the paradox of Beethoven, arguably the most influential composer in Western music history, who was almost completely deaf by the end of his professional life. With this recording we add a new dimension to our fascination. “You do hear better, if you put your head into this machine, don’t you?” André Stein asked Beethoven in 1824, almost certainly in reference to the contraption Stein had built back in 1820.[4] Two centuries later, we too can put our heads inside the hearing machine and wonder: Do we hear Beethoven differently?


Ghent, June 30, 2017

[1] Letter of February 7, 1818, in Sieghard Brandenburg, ed., Ludwig van Beethoven: Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe (Munich: G. Henle Verlag, 1996), 4:173.

[2] Köhler, Karl-Heinz, Dagmar Beck, and Günter Brosche, eds., Ludwig van Beethovens Konversationshefte (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1976), 2:151.

[3] Letter of February 7, 1818, in Brandenburg, ed., Ludwig.

[4] Köhler, Karl-Heinz, Grita Herre, and Heinz Schöny, eds., Ludwig van Beethovens Konversationshefte (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1974), 6:276.