‘Writing about Beethoven helped me come to terms with my own hearing loss’

Musician Clare Norburn had been reluctant to admit to her hearing problems, but a decision to write about Beethoven helped her embrace the present rather than worry about the future

As someone who makes a living as both a soprano and a playwright, I should find Beethoven an obvious subject of interest. Even more so now, as 18 months ago I was diagnosed with a hearing loss condition called acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma, which will eventually lead to complete hearing loss in my right ear. I already often sleep through my alarm if I have my good ear jammed into my pillow.

One in six people suffer some form of hearing loss. There is no reason to suppose musicians are magically exempt from that statistic. Yet you wouldn’t know it. That fear of admitting to hearing loss hasn’t changed since Beethoven’s day. It is still simply too risky. Hearing is an essential tool for a musician, and human beings are not very good at understanding subtleties: that it is possible to have hearing loss, yet still hear enough to continue being a musician.

But I almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen to write a play about Beethoven were it not for Krysia Osostowicz, leader of the Dante Quartet. We met shortly after my diagnosis, ostensibly to discuss fundraising for the quartet’s tour of Japan. But instead we ended up talking about their plans to perform the entire cycle of Beethoven’s 16 or 17 string quartets (depending on how you count them) over six concerts. Krysia had ideas for combining the quartets with readings and narrative. I told her about the positive reactions to my work with the Marian Consort for their performances of my concert-cum-play Breaking the Rules, about 16th-century composer and murderer Carlo Gesualdo.