Ear trumpets and automata

On a strange barren strip of coast in Kent, next to a nuclear power station and a lighthouse and a Napoleonic roundhouse, stand the most extraordinary structures.

They call them listening ears.

They are fashioned like something HG Wells would conceive: great concrete sound reflecting dishes, cocked towards the sea with the gravity, but not the good humour, of the Moai Men of Easter Island.

They loom. They tower, inhuman yet not entirely insensible, on that barren coast built of shale.

They are no longer of any use. They were built during the twenties and thirties to listen out for enemy aircraft. They worked like a vast ear-trumpet, collecting sound waves, the first to reverberate with the testy growl of enemy aircraft.

But then someone invented radar. And the Listening Ears became a curiosity. something over which men have wondered ever since.

Like the great ear-trumpet, the smaller ones have been superceded by modern technology.

I once taught at a school where some of the children were hearing impaired. They wore hearing aids, and all their teachers wore little transmitters round their necks. Your voice went straight to the child with no interruption: background noise could not interfere.

But it was as well to remember to turn them off when you weren’t teaching.

My friend left hers on by mistake.She was desperate for the toilet, hadn’t had a chance to go at break time. She set the children off on a task, put a learning assistant in charge and then fled .

An eventful three minutes later she arrived back to find the children in paroxysms of mirth.

She had just broadcast her own personal fly-on-the-wall documentary. It needed no commentary. Her charges were helpless with giggles.

If only Beethoven had such gadgets. The pianos in his house were mutilated, mauled things towards the end, as Ludwig’s hearing grew progressively worse, and the music seemed every more distant with every day.

But Beethoven had a friend to help him. One who designed custom-made ear trumpets.

His name was Johann Nepomuk Målzel.

He did not invent them, gracious no: the Romans and Greeks wrote of such contraptions, and there’s a 12th century mediaeval miniature in the French National Library showing King Arthur with one.

Yet in the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, the ear trumpets are there to see: bizarre steampunk sound-catchers, not just the traditional horn shale but one which looks like a salt and pepper shaker, and another which resembles nothing more than a bucket hanging on a horn.

The man responsible for these sound-catchers was not so much a solid scientific physician as a showman and a fly-by-night. A potential anti-hero for the perfect steampunk novel, Johann Nepomuk Målzel has some creditable inventions like a serviceable metronome to his name, alongside a crazy sideshow of automata.

Beethoven was drawn to one such: the panharmonicon.

A great mammoth of an instrument, it played all the instruments of a military band at the imperious wheeze of a bellows. Not only that, but it could imitate gunshot and cannon. It toured for 12 years, amazing audiences across the world.

What great composer could resist such an audacious sideshow?

Not Ludwig.

For the man who made his ear trumpets, there must be a special relationship. And Beethoven’s 91st work – made to celebrate Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 – was composed for the panharmonicon.

Whenever I listen to it, it makes me chuckle. A veritable medley of show tunes to show the inventor’s work off to its advantage. A bit disjointed, but when it is played on the modern wonder of the world, that famous panharmonicon, how can it fail to dazzle?

I am relieved I never heard it with the original instrumentation.

It would be enough to make one throw away the ear trumpet.


58 thoughts on “Ear trumpets and automata

  1. Amazing how far modern technology has come with hearing aids, the Lovely Miss TK is on her second pair in the last 12 years and they are light years better than her first pair. Listening to Beethoven’s 91st as I read this, very good to get one’s juices flowing.

  2. Well, at least a hearing trumpet doesn’t require batteries. My father had one of those transmitting ones for use in the classroom, they confiscated it once they found he had tuned it to the radio instead of listening to the teacher. I would love to visit those listening ears, it seems strange to think of them being built in peacetime after the war to end all wars and at the very beginning of aerial warfare. 🙂

  3. The listening ears are so cool. I got little shivers. Mark would love them, too! And the Wellington piece. I haven’t listened to is since my Beethoven survey during freshman year, and I’d forgotten how it’s all cannonfire and Rule Britannia and the Marlborough/Bear/Jolly Fellow tune. I never knew about the panharmonicon, though. So crazy!

  4. Wonderful post, Kate!

    Aren’t those listening ears interesting? They would make for an interesting creative writing assignment for kids around, say, 12? Or, maybe and old granny like me.

  5. Don’t we all just marvel at Beethoven’s musical transcendency! The ability to create from within what he’d lost and inspire a friend to provide a little restoration. He was a complicated genius, but his compositions move me like no other. I haven’t thought of ear-trumpets in decades. I think we used to call them ear-horns, and I have a vague memory of someone in the family having one when I was very little. Ha! How interesting this was, Kate.

    1. Thanks, Debra 🙂 It’s amazing what you find out with a little ear trumpet research. I was going to repost an old post about the listening ears, but I find my style has changed without me noticing, and now the old post simply will not do. And I get such a buzz out of finding new things.

  6. My favorite Beethoven piece remains his cheerful, Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral.”But I do love the piece you posted. If I close my eyes, I can easily envision the cannons and guns popping.

    It’s serendipity that I read your post, Kate, after my students read Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds.” In the story, a retired deaf piano teacher – like Beethoven – is featured. It’s lovely to hear the “two kinds” of music that Beethoven offers: war and peace.

      1. I suspect that the virtual visit to that museum is the closest I’ll ever get to Bonn, so any stray ear trumpets left lying around will continue to just lie around, far removed from this New Yorker’s needy ear canal.

  7. Fun post, Kate. From paroxysms of giggles to the very last line.

    I seem to remember an ear trumpet in a movie from my youth . . . perhaps Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

    1. We have been sifting the film all day for the ear trumpet, Nancy. We think it’s in the ballroom scene, but YouTube does not have it: so we are going to sit down and watch it from end to end to check it out tomorrow 🙂

  8. I have seen those listening ears…. and could hardly believe it when told what they are, or were!
    Such a shame they can’t be put into use as a demonstration item for visiting children.

  9. I do love this bit of fun music by my favourite composer!
    Hilarious about the teacher broadcasting – Handle Water Music?
    As you often do, you have set me on a quest in another direction, which is doubtless going to culminate in a post one of these days …

  10. The hearing lumps of concrete on the south coast were frankly obsolete before they were even built. Britain invented Radar (RDF) or so the official histories immediately after the war told us. The Germans had it before us (but they lost so it’s a historical irrelevance) 😉 As the cold war developed it became apparent that Radar was as much a giveaway of position as a way of finding the enemy – It reached the stage where Radar was only turned on once you knew the enemy already knew where you were and passive sensors became the first line of defence – we’re almost back to those concrete ears here! The Russians (God blessem) went the infra-red route for their detection in the MiG 29 – NATO couldn’t beleive how effective that plane was (It also relied upon the Pilot’s ability to fly using traditional controls rather than the computer driven controls of the F-16 and the other recent NATO planes – In the event of a Nuclear war it would still fly when the NATO planes couldn’t – no wonder they were scared… Never overlook simple technology 😉

    1. What a cracking comment, Martin: a potted history of listening ears, RDF, infra-red …. it has, as your comments always do, answered so many unanswered questions. Thanks!

  11. Someone at a company I used to work at did the exact same thing with his mic during a toilet break at a presentation and proceeded to have a conversation with himself about his bowel movements.
    Do you know if any panharmonicons still exist, Kate?

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