Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

I’m 17 years old, starting my first year of university, and I have strong opinions about music. I embrace the music of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt—revelling in the tumultuous emotions, lyrical lines, and flashy virtuosity. I love the mysticism of Scriabin, the drama of Prokofiev, and the accessibility of Gershwin. I walk into my college professor’s studio and inform him (with all the arrogance of an outspoken 17-year-old) that I don’t like the Classical era. He councils me to withhold judgment, and then assigns me Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31, no. 2, commonly known as the Tempest Sonata. He reads me perfectly. I rush headlong into the sonata with all the passion I brought to the Romantics. The mercurial shifts match my dramatic mood swings, the sudden changes keep me from “zoning out” in the development, and the sheer masculine energy of it assures me that it doesn’t sound easy. With this one piece, Beethoven becomes “mine”—music where all the drama of college romance, artistic dreams, and growing up find an auditory home. And through Beethoven, I learn to love an era of piano music I’d ignorantly dismissed as “boring.”

I’m 23 years old and am sitting in my apartment watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony a month and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A child of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had felt as permanent as the Great Wall of China until it wasn’t, and when the unbelievable happened, the world got a little smaller and a little more hopeful. In this televised concert, Bernstein, the orchestra, the choir, and most importantly, Beethoven embodies an irrepressible joy and optimism that sweeps me—an American—into a celebration that transcends borders. It’s a party—one that by being a member of humanity I’m invited to join. The music and the celebration goes on and on, as if the joy can’t be contained to a few minutes in time and must erupt over and over again before the Symphony reaches its rousing conclusion and the crowd erupts. I weep through the final notes.

I’m 28 years old, standing backstage, waiting to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra is playing Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture. As the piece progresses, so do my pre-performance jitters. A woman I don’t know stands beside me and wants to massage my hands in preparation for my performance. Both my nerves and the bizarre hand massage imprint themselves on Beethoven’s Overture, guaranteeing that listening to that piece gives me anxiety for the rest of my life.

I’m 35 years old and working as a piano instructor. At certain stages of their development, most students wants to learn Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and the Pathetique. I shepherd them through the inevitable problem spots and I commiserate with colleagues about how fatigued we all get teaching these chestnuts. Through my students I find new things to appreciate in music I know well—subtle nuances that reflect the interests and enthusiasms of each performer. Through my students’ ears, I learn to hear Beethoven anew.

I’m 39 years old and have been asked to perform Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with a small chamber orchestra. A conductor-less chamber orchestra. A chamber orchestra who’s concertmaster/artistic director assures me he will conduct from his position in the orchestra. Everything goes well until dress rehearsal when the 2nd movement falls apart because the strings are in one place and the winds are in another. I go home in a panic, am awake half the night with worry, and then call a friend the next day for advice. She tells me to play with the score, color code the orchestra’s parts so I can cue entrances with my head as I perform. I do so vigorously—my concert up-do tossing curls around with every emphatic nod. The orchestra and I make it through the concerto intact. Afterward, many audience members tell me that they enjoyed how passionate my performance was—an assessment made solely on the basis of my head movements and not from the panicked notes that accompanied the unintended theatrics.

I’m 53 years old, looking back over a lifetime’s relationship with Beethoven’s music. I specialize in playing the music of living composers and as such, it has been years since I’ve performed any Beethoven. But I see traces of him everywhere—in the bass lines of some pieces, the melodies of another. Most of all, I find him in my own struggles, personal and musical. Beethoven is so completely and utterly human. Like the old Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Beethoven struggled. He worked for every note he wrote. He wrestled with infirmity and loss. Yet somehow, he emerged from these battles and his late compositions transcend notes, form, and perhaps time itself. In Beethoven I find a snapshot of life, purified in the crucible of art, offering a glimpse of the best of humanity.


4200DC39-5E3C-4868-8678-4E894B0C1D9F_1_201_aRhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist and author. She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations. She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, http://www.nodeadguys.comnodeadguys.com.

The red cloth-bound three-volume edition of Beethoven’s complete Piano Sonatas spent nearly 20 years squirelled away in a storage box – not unlike my relationship with the piano which waned, and nearly died, when I left home to go to university. My father sold the early twentieth-century Challen upright on which I had studied so seriously for my grade exams, and I found other interests and diversions in my life.

What lit the spark and renewed my interest in the piano in my late 30s? I’m not entirely sure, only that as a parent of a young-ish child I was experiencing something common to many mothers: I felt invisible, no longer an individual in my own right, but a woman defined only by her ability to push another human being into this world.

My mum, an artist, recognised an urge to create within me and bought me a digital piano, quietly hinting that I might like to start playing again. The dusty box of music was tentatively opened and out came volumes of Bach and Chopin, Schubert and and Debussy, and of course those three volumes of Beethoven. It was hard at first: however willing the spirit, the body was less than compliant, fingers clumsy and tentative, but the spark was reignited, and there was no going back….. Now the Beethoven volumes sit proudly on my bookcase. I don’t work from these volumes – they are too cumbersome and their commentaries and editorial notes are somewhat outdated – but they are significant because they connect me to my first encounters with LvB’s piano music.

I think I probably first heard Beethoven’s music on the record player in my grandparents’ front room (a room reserved for Sundays and special occasions). My grandfather, a staunch Labour man and leader of one of the UK’s largest trade unions in the 1960s, adored Beethoven for his music and his radical, indomitable spirit. The sixth and seventh symphonies were my grandfather’s favourites. In the front room was a piano on which my grandfather liked to play Methodist hymns and snippets of Haydn and Beethoven, and I loved sitting next to him while he played or exploring the treasure trove of sheet music in the piano stool, old volumes of the sonatas and bagatelles, their pages friable and crumbly as oatmeal, with that special musty antique smell redolent of churches and second-hand bookshops. When I started learning the piano, I liked to take these volumes from the piano stool and set them on the music rack, rambling and stumbling through those thickets of notes, my grandfather applauding me from his armchair. It was great sight-reading practice, but probably didn’t do much justice to the music!

Like most young piano students, my first proper contact with Beethoven was through his short works, initially little marches and minuets; then the Sonatinas, which contain in microcosm so much of his distinctive writing for piano and provide a wonderful stepping stone to the ‘easier’ piano sonatas. I learnt the pair of Op 49 piano sonatas when I was about 10, and then, in my early teens, in preparation for my Grade 8 exam, the pre-cursor to the Pathétique, the sonata No 5 in C minor. I think it was this work, along with the Archduke Trio (Op 97), which I studied for music A-level, which really drew me into Beethoven’s world and fostered a deep fascination for his music, specifically his writing for piano, which remains to this day. Alongside this, I had discovered the piano concertos and for a while the fifth concerto – the mighty Emperor with that extraordinary oasis of calm in its middle movement – became my absolute favourite piece of music (as I’ve matured, the fourth concerto, in G major, has since become my favourite!).

So what is it about Beethoven which appealed to this rather precocious young piano student? I think I, like my grandfather, admired Beethoven’s spirit, his energy and directness, his stubborn refusal to give up, the sense of him at once shaking his fist and railing at the world while also thoroughly embracing it with a humanity to which we can all relate, and also the sheer beauty of much of his writing, especially his transcendent slow movements. During my teens, I was obsessed with his piano music and asked for, and received, the complete piano sonatas for my 18th birthday (that red clothbound edition), a rather pretentious, esoteric gift for a teenager (but I did also receive a beautiful pair of electric blue suede stilettos!). But at the same time I was discovering and learning some of Schubert’s piano music and obsessing about that too, and long before I had a proper understanding of the distinctive musical landscape of these two composers, I found the similarities, contrasts and differences between them fascinating. Beethoven wore his heart on his sleeve while Schubert seemed introspective, intimate and solitary. Even as a teenager, I never regarded Schubert as the ‘poor relation’ to Beethoven; these were two composers whose music sat side by side on the lid of my piano, and in my musical sensibilities.

When I returned to the piano seriously in my late 30s after some 20 years absence, it was to Beethoven (and Schubert) that I first turned. But not the piano sonatas, curiously, given my teenage obsession with them; instead, I learnt, in preparation for my first piano lesson in 25 years, the delightful Rondo in C, Op 51, no. 1.

For the pianist, Beethoven’s writing for the instrument is truly superb because of his deep understanding of the capabilities of the piano, and its ability, through dynamics, harmony, articulation, timbre and expression to transform into any texture, instrument or ensemble he wishes it to be – string quartet, lyrical songlines, triumphant brass, haunting woodwind or orchestral tuttis; it’s all here in Beethoven’s piano writing and one continually senses his sheer delight in what the piano offered him. Because of this, the pianist needs a vivid imagination to bring these myriad textures and voices to life; technique alone is not sufficient.

He’s also incredibly precise in his writing –  think of the articulation in the opening measures of the Tempest sonata (op 31, no. 2), a frantic cascade of drop slurs which must be perfectly articulated to create an unsettling sense of urgency and worry – and woe betide the pianist who does not observe his carefully-placed directions, for every marking must to be understood in its context. He demands so much of us – a crescendo on a single note, for example, a physical impossibility for the pianist, yet a perfect example of “psychological dynamics”, and when one understands this notion, the direction makes perfect sense (Schubert does this too). Yet despite his precision and clarity, he also leaves much open to one’s own interpretation and personal vision: there is no “right way” in Beethoven (though certain critics, commentators, players, teachers, and others may insist otherwise!).

In the course of some 35 years of piano playing and concert-going, I have learnt a mere handful of his piano sonatas, but heard all of them live in concert, either singly or in sonata cycles, performed by some of the greatest pianists of our time – John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim, François-Frédéric Guy, Mitsuko Uchida, Stephen Hough, and most recently Igor Levit, each pianist bringing their own vision and personality to this great music. But there is one sonata which has eluded me as a player, the middle of the final triptych, the Opus 110 in A♭ major. It is my favourite piano sonata by Beethoven, or indeed anyone else, and this favouritism has undoubtedly affected my ability to learn this work, even though it is within my capabilities. It is too easy to place Beethoven and his music on a pedestal and this veneration can obscure one’s ability to simply face the music as an equal in order to settle to learning it. This has been my problem with Opus 110. “One day you’ll play it” a concert pianist friend assured me, and I’m certain he is right….

Meanwhile, here is Igor Levit, whose performance of this incredible sonata I was privileged to hear in his final concert of his Wigmore Hall Beethoven cycle in 2017.