Part of the CSO's online Australian Miniseries, Herr Beethoven's Audiologist was composed by Vincent Plush for solo bassoon. The premiere is performed by CSO bassoonist Kristen Sutcliffe.
Program note –
This short work was commissioned by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra to showcase its principal bassoonist, Kristen Sutcliffe, to whom it is dedicated. Despite its short duration (under 4 minutes, as specified by the commission), the piece attempts to combine several ideas.
Kristen is a qualified and practising audiologist working in Canberra. I searched for an idea that would combine both aspects of her professional life, hearing and music. As I was planning the piece, there was some deal of discussion about the hearing problems of Beethoven. In 2020, our musical lives gravitated around the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
At this same time, I had an audiology test of my own at Melbourne University. In past years, I used to be able to tell pitches and even actual frequencies, perhaps the legacy of my training, long ago, as an organist and in computer music. Today, my capacity to identify pitches and frequencies has slipped considerably. Still, my audiologist and I had fun as I attempted to identify the pitches of the blips that passed from one ear to the other and the low rumbles that seemed to be variants of white or coloured noise.
In my second orchestra piece Concord: Eendracht (1989), I quoted a fragment from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 (“The Emperor”). Wanting a truly beautiful melody for the bassoon piece, I returned to this fragment as a kind of birthday genuflection to Beethoven.
Thus the conceit of the piece takes the form of Beethoven himself being subjected to a present-day audiology test. [The composer famously wrote about his diminishing hearing in the Heiligenstadt Testament (1802).] In his head, the blips and blurts of the test compete with a melody that strains to emerge, but never quite manages to do so, no matter how hard Beethoven pushes to the limits of the bassoon’s uppermost register.
I think of Herr Beethoven’s Audiologist as the audiologist’s report on imaginary tests of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hearing, conducted over two centuries ago.
3 August 2020*
*The first full day of the ‘state of disaster’ declared in Victoria