Helen Keller Letter on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Goes Viral
by Helen Selsdon
On Saturday March 29, NPR’s Scott Simon read an excerpt from a letter that Helen Keller wrote describing her joy at “listening” to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio. The source of this feature is AFB’s Facebook post on Helen Keller: The Official Fan Page. We are thrilled that this post has been viewed by almost 2 million people so far. This letter is just one of the over 80,000 items in Helen Keller’s archival collection that AFB seeks funding to digitize. Digitization means ensuring that these materials are accessible to millions across the globe and preserved for generations to come. Please help us save the legacy of this extraordinary woman by donating to the American Foundation for the Blind and designating “Helen Keller Archives.”
For those who have not seen this amazing post, here it is. Enjoy!
Helen Keller wrote the following letter to the New York Symphony Orchestra in March 1924. Here's how she describes listening to Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" over the radio:
I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth – an ocean of heavenly vibration – and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
Of course this was not “hearing,” but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sense, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand-swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.
As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others – and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.
The Auricle, Vol. II, No. 6, March 1924. American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives.
Re: Helen Keller Letter on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Goes ViralPosted by adriannamg on 4/2/2014 at 11:56 AM
This is an absolutely beautiful piece from Helen Keller. I'm happy to see millions have seen it and enjoyed it!
Re: Helen Keller Letter on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Goes ViralPosted by RebeccaB on 4/2/2014 at 4:17 PM
I agree with Adrianna's comment! I wonder if the "magazine for the blind" that Helen refers to was the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness?
Re: Helen Keller Letter on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Goes ViralPosted by maribelsteel on 10/6/2014 at 5:06 AM
Incredible! Every single time I read something new about Helen Keller, I am moved, inspired and in awe of her charming descriptions of a textured world. I can only imagine the amazement of the orchestra to have received her letter!
Thank you so much for these articles, they open are eyes and hearts still - decades later...and for future generations.
Re: Helen Keller Letter on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Goes ViralPosted by jrgiancola on 9/16/2015 at 5:05 PM
I am neither blind nor deaf. I do have a mild hearing loss due to age. Helen Keller has been one of my idols since I was a teenager. I marveled at her courage, intelligence, and accomplishment when I first read her autobiography. Anne Sullivan Macy inspired me to become a teacher. This is a wonderful article, especially since the 9th is my favorite piece of classical work. What a great legacy Ms. Keller and Mrs. Macy left to us.
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