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Deafness and tinnitus in a musician – Bedřich Smetana

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 6 January 2012

Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Czech composer, pianist and conductor Smetana is too famous for me to write a potted biography, but what you may not know is that he suffered from both deafness and tinnitus. “Unlike Beethoven, Smetana had 50 years of normal hearing, but once becoming deaf, he shared the ability to compose in his head. He produced some of his most beautiful and moving music during the last decade of his life…” (Mango). The deafness, possibly exacerbated by his ill health generally, came on in the 1870s. In July 1874 he complained of blocked ears and dizziness. It is possible, but disputed, that it was brought on as a result if syphilis. Various cures were attempted including electric shocks, and for a while an ether douche appeared to help – he wrote “For the first time in ages, I can hear the entire range of the octaves in tune.” (quoted in Mango). By October he was completely deaf. He could only communicate by writing and when he spoke he shouted.  “If my disease is incurable, then I should prefer to be liberated from this life.” (Large).

He described his tinnitus as “a pounding and intense hissing in the head, day and night, without ceasing, as if I were standing underneath a huge waterfall”, and his first string quartet, From my Life, included assonant high-pitched notes in to mimic this tinnitus noise.  His life ended tragically in the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

LARGE, Brian, 1970. Smetana. London

MANGO, K. Ma vlast…my country: Bedrich Smetana. Hearing Health, 1999, 15(6), 50-52.

Smetana on Wikipedia

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