Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Music and deafness

Thu Jul 4 2019

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"One thing that is always surprising to me is how beautifully the softest sounds carry." @houghhough talks preparat… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…


On Friday 28 May 2019, we teamed up with The Bach Choir to put on a signed performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. We spoke to Rufus Stilgoe, a singer in the bass section of the choir and a member of the creative committee, about how it was using sign language for this production.

The link with Beethoven and deafness led us to the idea of getting a signer and marketing tickets for the hard of hearing. We then wanted to go further and explore what being deaf is like as a musician.  

The choir all had a go at signing a short passage from the Credo (“I believe”) part of the mass. Signing and singing simultaneously is tough, especially since we can’t hold our music and sign at the same time.  The mental gymnastics involved in conveying meaning in two different ways is fun, especially when we are singing in Latin.  The nice thing about British Sign Language is that some of it is quite graphic, so Heaven and Earth are lovely signs, as is God, and visible, and invisible.  It’s humbling to get some small taste of the challenges deaf people face.

It was an amazing and uplifting experience.  The piece itself is by turns monumentally difficult, dramatic and brutal, and sublimely contemplative, and pleads at the end for peace.  Beethoven’s plea may be for an end to war, but also an end to his internal conflict, and perhaps even a cry of frustration at his deafness.

The enhancement with Paul Whittaker signing, assisted by Richard Stilgoe, was amazing and moving.  Paul’s signing was intensely dramatic – it was hard to take your eyes off him, even when we were supposed to be watching David Hill, the conductor.  Paul didn’t just convey meaning, but did it in time with the music, adjusting his movements with the pace and volume of the music.  It was an incredible achievement.

Having a signer present, and learning a bit about deaf musicians’ experiences, really put the piece into perspective.  It was impossible to forget about Beethoven’s deafness and the fact that he never heard his own wonderful music.  He still carried on, as do deaf musicians everywhere.


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