December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Beethoven and Margaret Mead

You've probably heard of Beethoven....

He is one of the best-known and most-loved composers. Not only is his music great, many of us are stunned when we learn that he composed (and conducted and played) much of his wonderful music while completely deaf!

Ludwig von Beethoven was born in Germany in 1770. Actually, we don't know for sure that his birth
day was December 16th; all that has survived in the way of birth records is his baptismal certificate, which was dated December 17, 1770. However, the custom of the time was to baptize babies the day after they were born, and there is evidence that Beethoven celebrated his birthday on the sixteenth.

Beethoven's deafness began with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. As his hearing got worse, and after he became totally deaf, Beethoven would use a special gizmo as he composed music at his piano: he attached a rod to the soundboard of his piano, and then he would bite the other end of the rod. The vibrations would transfer from the soundboard to his jaw, and since sound is “just” vibrations, in a sense he was able to hear.

One of the most touching stories occurred at the end of the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He couldn't hear any audience reaction, but someone turned him around so he could see them tumultuously applaud.

Thanks to his deafness, we have interesting records of the last ten years of Beethoven's life and thoughts in the form of conversation books. In these books friends would write down what they were saying, and he would respond orally or in the books. According to Wikipedia,
“The books contain discussions about music and other issues, and give insights into his thinking; they are a source for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and also his perception of his relationship to art. Unfortunately, 264 out of a total of 400 conversation books were destroyed (and others were altered) after Beethoven's death by Anton Schindler, in his attempt to paint an idealized picture of the composer.”

Listen toFur Elise” and other musical pieces.

Explore Beethoven's website (created by a fan).

And, many years later...

On this day
in 1901, American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was born.

Mead is famous partly because she took the time to popularize anthropology. That means she wrote, not just for other academics, but also for the general public. Her most famous book was Coming of Age in Samoa.

ther reason Mead is famous is because there is controversy about her work. Her greatest critic, Derek Freeman, wrote that when Mead interviewed Samoan teenage girls, the girls lied to her as a joke, but that Mead thought the tall tales were true and included them in her book. Freeman was sure that Mead and her coworkers were not unbiased as they studied Samoans and other groups, but instead wanted to find, for example, peaceful societies or societies in which women held the power. That made the anthropologists gullible in the direction of the things they wanted to hear.

Many other anthropologists agree that some of Mead's “observations” were, in fact, wrong, but they criticize Freeman as well. He was at least as driven by ideology, these critics say, as Mead.

It's hard to be unbiased when it comes to studying another culture—or especially when analyzing our own! We should all be at least a little bit skeptical of what we are merely told, and continue to look for other sorts of evidence.

Here are some words of wisdom from Mead herself:
"What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things."

More Margaret Mead quotes:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

"Thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders."

"I learned the value of hard work by working hard."

" I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world."
"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."

Help Someone, Somewhere

Inspired by Margaret Mead's words about a small group of people being able to enact change in the world, Barbara J. Fedlman has compiled a list of volunteer organizations that kids have started or participated in.

Learn about Cultural Anthropology

This web tutorial is pretty high-level but interesting.

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