Crisis management and Beethoven | Music | DW | 18.01.2013
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Crisis management and Beethoven

Crises have a massive effect on people's lives. One German psychologist has used the life and works of composer Ludwig van Beethoven to demonstrate her model of the eight stages of tackling tricky situations.

Since the 1970s, psychologist and learning specialist Erika Schuchardt has been investigating how people overcome personal crises. She has worked with hundreds of people and read over 2,000 biographies to learn more about their crisis management. In the process, she stumbled across composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven's life

Beethoven was hard of hearing by age 28. Three years later, he would describe how he had lost the ability to hear high pitches and had difficulty understanding speech. He complained of torturous buzzing in his ears, audio disturbances and sensitivity to sound. The composer's deafness worsened, so that he ultimately felt socially isolated. He realized people were ridiculing and humiliating him.

Author Erika Schuchardt and a bust of Beethoven Photo DW/Per Henriksen

Author Erika Schuchardt and her subject

"He felt marginalized and didn't know how to deal with his aggression," noted psychologist Schuchardt. "He couldn't speak and ended up, as a young man, writing a sort of last will and testament in 1802 in which he laments a society that considers him hostile, sick and stubborn."

In his testament, he wrote: "I would put an end to my life if it weren't for my art. I have to live for as long as You give me music, Dear God. (…) Lord, give me the strength to overcome myself."

The stages of crisis management

Drawing in part on Beethoven's life, Schuchardt has developed a model of eight different stages people pass through when attempting to overcome a psychological crisis. For anyone confronted with a crisis, the first question they always ask is: "What's really going wrong?" Beethoven, for his part, expressed his uncertainties in letters to his two brothers and his friends, Schuchardt said.

In the second phase of the crisis management spiral, Beethoven denied his deafness as an illness. It was too painful for him to admit to himself or to others, the psychologist observed.

Then comes the "emotionally uncontrolled transitional phase." Beethoven spent many years of his life holding back his emotions, so that the third stage - which revolves around the question 'why me?' - was more of an eruption with him. He turned against friends, and forbade them to listen to him while he practiced. At the same time, he tried to negotiate with his fate (the fourth phase), hoping to overcome his illness with the help of doctors and by going on pilgrimages.

This stage led into the fifth phase - depression - and thoughts of 'why? It's all so senseless!"

Things take a turn with the six stage, in which one begins to move toward acceptance. Beethoven once suggested the crosses we have to bear in life are a bit like sharps in music: They elevate. His statement punned on the German word Kreuz, which can refer to both a musical sharp and a cross.

The composer eventually passed to the penultimate stage, in which one begins to take action. In his world-famous Ninth Symphony, he set Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" to music, breaking with music convention by including choral music in the symphony. The work could be said to mark Beethoven reaching the final stage of crisis management - expressing solidarity with society and the universal order.

A horn Beethoven used to magnify sound (c) dpa-picture alliance

Beethoven had to use special tools to cope with his hearing loss

A creative leap

Pianist Constantin Barzantny sees Erika Schuchardt's eight-fold model of crisis management in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 - the Hammerklavier sonata. Barzantny calls it "the longest soliloquy in piano literature."

Schuchardt agrees: "In the last twelve measures, Beethoven goes through all eight phases. The most impressive thing for me is that the last phase of solidarity becomes a creative leap out of the crisis. It's true for all of us: You just have to have courage, you will make it, and you will, as Beethoven said in his prayer, find a way to overcome yourself.

The author goes on to discuss other examples of prominent people who have passed through the eight stages she describes - concluding with a sense of solidarity with God and society. They include the German theater director and atheist Christoph Schlingensief and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who both died in recent years.

'Voice of the disenfranchised'

In 2008, Erika Schuchart presented her new approach to conceptualizing Beethoven's life and work. Now her book is in its third edition and titled "Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt: Beethovens schöpferischer Sprung aus der Krise" (A Kiss to the Entire World: Beethoven's Creative Leap out of Crisis).

When asked to whom the book is directed, the author told DW, "I think that everyone can find him or herself in it. In Beethoven's lifetime, society denied him his desire for human closeness. In his loneliness, he developed an infinite sensitivity in language and in life. Beethoven was a voice for the disenfranchised. But he viewed his life as a service to God and afflicted people, and, as such, is for us 'the' crisis manager of all time."

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