Guest post by Jessica Duchen

Beethoven year is over. Well, not quite. In Germany, it’s set to carry on well into 2021, and beyond; one tribute I’m involved with in Berlin is postponed until 2022. Fortunately, to some extent every year is Beethoven year.

When the pandemic struck, I was hard at work on my book Immortal, the story of Beethoven’s (probably) real “Immortal Beloved”. It certainly kept me busy during lockdown, and I often thanked heaven that I had Beethoven, of all composers, for company. If there had to be a major anniversary during this grim year, how lucky it was his. I don’t know any other composer who “gives” quite so much to his listeners and, especially, his players. Sit at your piano and practise Beethoven for an hour: you’ll likely come away with your energy replenished, not drained. There’s a comforting heart in his music large enough for the whole world.

Unlike other composers with anniversaries, Beethoven scarcely needs to be reassessed or re-evaluated. There is simply no getting away from the fact that this is music of genius – adulterated only occasionally, when he had to make ends meet (‘Wellington’s Victory’, anyone?) – and his works continue to influence composers even in the 21st century. Anyone who really thinks it’s a good idea to “cancel” him could light a candle now to the patron saint of lost causes, whose name I forget.

Still, if there’s been a revelation about him in 2020, it’s that his music is sometimes associated with struggle at the expense of his sheer joie de vivre. He was drawn to Schiller’s An die Freude – To Joy – from the start: the poem was published in 1785 and it seems he wanted to set it to music even in the early 1790s. Although he did not manage it until the Ninth Symphony, that doesn’t mean glimmers of its underlying spirit can’t be detected in some of his other works.

Beethoven fills his music with an intergalactic range of emotional experience. In his early works he pushed through the boundaries, sometimes within one piece; try the Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 with its pitch-dark Largo, or the String Quartet Op. 18 No. 1, in which the second movement is said to evoke the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet – and if he had never written anything else, he would still be revered for these today. At the other end of the spectrum, he was writing odes to joy all his life.

The text of An die Freude in the Ninth Symphony is an extract, heavily edited for public palatability. Read the whole poem and it’s startling, even a bit crazy: ebullience, religious ecstasy, passion, drunkenness, siblinghood, social equality and much else parade through its stanzas in a celebratory carnival. Potentially there’s even more of its spirit in the Seventh Symphony than the Ninth.

Yet, to generalise terribly, the sense of “divine play” that creates Beethoven’s celestial joy is perhaps overlooked too often. Our own preoccupations, preconceptions and insecurities mean that sometimes we sideline joy in favour of reverence to a “towering genius”, the perceived need to be “historically correct” or, heaven help us, an inclination to be “iconoclastic” to evoke a “fresh approach”. If we’re to reach the “real” Beethoven, we need to get out of his way.

Take the Diabelli Variations: it’s full of jokes from start to finish, whether the sideswipe at Don Giovanni, the quirky contrast of hammered octaves and two soft little chords – or even the notion of that daft waltz theme as the basis for such a battalion of ideas in the first place. Once I wrote programme notes for a recital including it, with ample reference to these musical jests, only for a friend who was there to call the next morning and report that not one hint of humour surfaced in the whole performance.

Writing Immortal, I wanted to uncover the human being trapped beneath two centuries of accumulated grime. Behind the hot temper, the anguish, the deafness, the chaotic lifestyle, the self-delusions (there were quite a few) and the impossible – if self-inflicted – situation he faced in attempting to adopt his nephew, I found an individual who could be kind, generous, intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful and idealistic to an extraordinary degree; one who in his youth could be witty and spirited, and whose self-exclusion from society because of his deafness was an agonising burden.

High-minded, indeed; uncompromising, for sure, as the “Immortal Beloved” herself was to discover. And strong, resilient, overpowering, thanks to his sense of vocation. He wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament that he felt he could not leave the world until he had brought forth all that was within him. His art kept him alive at a time when he might otherwise have ended his own life; thereafter he lived for that alone.

Sometimes we forget that genius is human: it is a phenomenon found only in human beings. What most of us can’t grasp is the degree of devotion it takes to function at such a level. That would need a chapter of its own – perhaps for the next Beethoven anniversary, in 2027.


Immortal by Jessica Duchen is out now, published by Unbound.

Jessica Duchen writes for and about music. Her work encompasses journalism, fiction, biography and opera/choral librettos. She was a music critic for The Independent from 2004 to 2016 and has written for BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer and The JC, among others.

Her latest novel (2020), IMMORTAL, reveals the epic love story behind Beethoven’s famous ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter. Other novels include GHOST VARIATIONS, based on the bizarre discovery and Nazi propaganda conscription of Schumann’s suppressed violin concerto.

Jessica Duchen’s website

Guest post by Dr Mark Berry


On 6 October 1802, Beethoven penned one of the most deeply moving letters in the history of music. He never sent it to his brothers Carl and Johann, the intended recipients, nor to anyone else. It was discovered only after his death, in March 1827, and is now known to the world as his ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, after the town in which it was written, now the nineteenth district of Vienna and home to more than one noted Heuriger. Beethoven’s despair, even to the point of suicide, concerning his ‘hopeless case’ of deafness stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of hope so many of us find in his music, to the hope his Leonore/Fidelio bids come in her heart-stopping aria. ‘I was compelled early on to isolate myself, to live in loneliness… how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me in than others’. That Beethoven grew deaf to the world was a personal, if not from the selfish standpoint of posterity, an artistic tragedy.

2020 was to have been Beethoven’s year: 250 years, a quarter of a millennium, since a birth—of unknown date—that transformed the history of Western music like no other. And so it began: in February, I visited his birthplace of Bonn for the first time and heard chamber music in the hall now built to adjoin the house in which Beethoven was born. Lockdown undeniably hit hard. Then came deafness, this time of the world to Beethoven. In April alone, I was due to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in all nine symphonies, followed by Fidelio from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. For many who find solace, inspiration, and necessary struggle in the communion of art and its public performance, 2020 has been a year bleaker than we could have imagined. A recording, however valued, remains a substitute, a compromise: it is the only way we shall hear Wilhelm Furtwängler, but now how we need to hear Barenboim.

And yet, the world’s will to deafness had manifested itself earlier: especially among US liberals who, with typical imperialism, presumed to impose their particular, local concerns on the rest of the world. By 2018 at the latest, one group were falling over themselves to impress on everyone else, at least on Twitter, quite how much they wished not to hear a note of Beethoven’s music this year. (As if we cared!) They might actually have deigned to struggle, as Beethoven would have done, for the causes, many worthy, they claimed to pursue. Instead, in their disingenuous faux-struggle against racism and misogyny—less, be it noted, class struggle—firing off a few anti-Beethoven tweets ensured a volley of mutual congratulation loud enough to drown out the Ivesian cacophony of several simultaneous performances of the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis. Anything, of course, to avoid confrontation with the compromises and contradictions of liberalism.

Such narcissistic emoting is not Romanticism; it is barely postmodernism, even in its most debased, late-capitalist sense. If only such people would look to Beethoven or to anyone other than themselves, they might learn to structure and thereby more convincingly express their thoughts and feelings. However, listening, performing, studying, thinking, and even feeling are hard work in any emphatic sense (how old-fashioned!) Why not instead adopt a levelling, free-market-led cynicism, and bask in the oven-ready plaudits?  Enough, however, of that. In a sense, they have had their way. Much, if not quite all, public performance of Beethoven has been silenced. If they feel that has been a good thing, so be it. If ‘their’ Beethoven is nothing more than an accident in consumer ranking, let them have it. Perhaps one day they will listen again and realise there was more to it than that; if not, our Beethoven(s) will remain. Who or what is mine?

My Beethoven has always been there. He has not, of course, always been there, yet it feels that way. I was certainly not playing the piano sonatas as a small child. An early memory, however, of early piano lessons is a poster on my teacher’s wall, displaying ‘The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms’, combined with a piece on the same subject—I remember it involved hammering on Bs in different keyboard registers—in one volume of the John W. Schaum piano course through which I was making my way. Beethoven’s music probably appealed most strongly to me. Bach unquestionably came later, not least as a consequence of having taken up the organ. Brahms I probably associated more with that lullaby than anything else. His is not really music for children, or at least was not music really for this child. Beethoven, however, was exciting, dramatic, Romantic: his biography as well as his music, for who could not respond to the tragedy of his deafness? I even wrote a little story about it for my piano teacher, to go in a display of written work accompanying an end-of-year concert. By then, I had played some of the sonatinas and bagatelles—little did I know quite what musical riches lay within the latter—and a simplified version or two of Für Elise. This, I knew, and not only because people told me so, was ‘real music’.

When, in my teens, the blinding aural light hit me and I realised just how much, both as pianist and listener, music mattered to me, it was perhaps above all via Mozart, but Beethoven more or less stood alongside that music, even offered a necessary contrast. Whatever oppositions I might draw between them could and should readily be deconstructed, but perhaps they offer some insight into my Beethoven, if not necessarily yours. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, I have found myself especially interested this year—whether at home or, at the beginning and, very occasionally since—in what the two composers have in common, in how much Mozart is there not only in ‘early Beethoven’, its challenges and riches still now underestimated, but right up until the end.

However, it is the particular subjectivity of ‘middle-period’ Beethoven—again, a construct to be deconstructed, yet not here—that captures the essence for so many and did for this teenager. Even the holy ground of the late music can seem, not without reason, to be defined in relation to the heroism of the Eroica, the Fifth, the Waldstein, the Razumovsky Quartets, and so on. If this is the Beethoven of which people have tired—it would often seem to be—then perhaps they have tired not only of life, but of the human impulse to create, to nurture, to survive. By all means listen to other music; by all means avoid the deadliness of mediocre performance. Such mediocrity, more of spirit than of execution, is not Beethoven’s fault, however. Its baleful presence does not diminish the human spirit’s need for that archetypal journey from darkness to light, for the portals of heaven to open at the close of the transition from C minor scherzo to C major finale. Listen to Furtwängler (or Barenboim): all will again be revealed.

Should it not be, for whatever reason, then struggle with something else, for struggle is the thing. Take the Mass in D major, op.125: the Missa solemnis. Take to heart Beethoven’s unique formulation, inscribed above the ‘Kyrie’, ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’? The thunderbolt of the ‘Gloria’ sounds like nothing we have heard before; we fancy that we hear not a description of the heavenly throng itself singing the Almighty’s praises, but that singing itself. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik are gratefully received, though we are never in doubt that such paradise has been lost forever. Most personal of all is the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’. Beethoven kneels—at the name of the one person (Person) before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.

Nowhere, however, is Beethoven’s struggle with belief more manifest than in, appropriately enough, his setting of the Creed; here he speaks to and for humanity in a plight recognisably of our time as well as his. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? The plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in which Beethoven had immersed himself come to resound as if through history, if not eternity. Echoes of what we now call ‘early music’ resound on profession of the mystery of the Incarnation, human soloists and flautist differentiating the Holy Trinity’s Second and First Person. One feels, as in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, Here, more so than in the oratorio Christus am Ölberge, is Beethoven’s Passion. ‘Passus’: it is compassion expressed for, as much as through, Christ: Christ as man, evoking the humanism of Fidelio. And yet, at the same time passion and compassion extend beyond earthbound confines, pointing to Kant’s ‘starry heavens above’, as noted in an 1820 conversation book. Beethoven’s notoriously difficult vocal writing compels us to ask: does he, do we, believe? Uphill struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet so much more than that, is valiantly, vigorously worked until finally we may return to ‘Credo’: in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost, yet more belief as such. As Mahler would later have it, ‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube!’

We travel through the devotion of the most intensely personal devotion of ‘Sanctus’ I know, a purely instrumental evocation of the Elevation of the Host; the descent of the Holy Ghost in the guise of solo violin, a masterstroke that in lesser hands might have sounded sentimental, yet here instantiates sublimity itself; the ‘Benedictus’ section, which, for Theodor Adorno, touchingly called to mind ‘the custom attributed to late mediaeval artists, who included their own image,’ in this case related to a theme in the E-flat major String Quartet, op.127, ‘somewhere on their tabernacle so that they would not be forgotten’; to the ‘Agnus Dei’, in darkest, most despairing dark B minor, permitting eventual, hard-won return to the work’s home key of D, its relative major. What could be more Beethovenian? The sounds of war, trumpets and drums ablaze, heard before in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, yet here let loose with modernistic fury, terrifyingly recall for Beethoven the recent experiences of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe and look forward to the terror of our own unstable world, interior and exterior. Beethoven takes us to the abyss. His Mass alienates itself in its fervent attempt to wrest reconciliation from the jaws of despair. And yet, that aura cannot entirely be disrupted, nor should it be.

A lesson, then, for this of all years, in its refusal to yield: as much, if not more so, to trite ‘solutions’ as to despair. In the modern world, our world, contradiction exists, whether we like it or not. We must struggle, even if we know not how. Or, in words, inscribed on a Toledo monastery wall, from which kindred spirit Luigi Nono derived such inspiration for his late music: ‘Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar’ (‘Travellers, there are no roads, there is just travelling’). Like those words and Beethoven’s—whether above the Mass’s ‘Kyrie’ or in his Testament—Beethoven’s music can seem essentially always to have been there. Nowadays, some find that a problem; to an extent, I think I can understand why. That, however, does not mean that I agree, far from it. Rejection is as wrong-headed as it would be for Shakespeare or Michelangelo; so long, that is, as we do not take them for granted.

Yes, let us pay more attention to Beethoven’s contemporaries. Schubert and Rossini can manage perfectly well without, but there is a good deal of music here more or less ignored, some unjustly neglected. My hot tip here is Anton Eberl, whose scores I have recently begun to explore. This music is, by any reasonable standards, the real thing; if Beethoven’s standards are unreasonable, we can afford to suspend them from time to time. We do not always want to listen to the Missa solemnis. Eberl’s E-flat Symphony was premiered at the same concert as Beethoven’s (the Eroica). We can all smile knowingly at contemporary criticism that lauded Eberl’s work while remaining sceptical of Beethoven’s. There is nevertheless music here worth performing in many genres—not least Eberl’s piano concertos. Let us also pay more attention to Beethoven’s predecessors, to his successors, to those who have struggled to escape his shadow, to those who have little or no connection with him at all—perhaps above all to the final group. We do Beethoven no dishonour by that, quite the contrary. Let us not presume, though, that it is for us in seldom acknowledge privilege to bar others from riches we have discovered or disdained. If ‘elitism’ is anything, it is that.

The tragedy of Beethoven’s deafness continues to be repeated, yet never literally, no more so than in any ‘recapitulation’ worthy of the name. Beethoven found his way forward from despair; we must find ours. His music may help us; it may not. Sooner or later, however, we may find that we need it: not only for our sake, but for that of something beyond us: for the music’s own sake, for humanity’s, even for the sake of that which, if like Beethoven, we continue to struggle, we may dare still to call God. Perhaps He will thereby dare once again to call us humans. ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’


Mark Berry read History at the University of Cambridge, continuing there to study for an MPhil and PhD, before being elected in 2001 as a Fellow of Peterhouse, where he remained until 2009, upon his appointment as Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway. He has lectured on subjects ranging from political culture at Louis XIV’s Versailles to European Marxism and music after 1945. His research has tended to draw upon his interests in both History and Music, as well as upon other disciplines, such as Philosophy, Theology, Art and Architectural History, Theatre Studies, and Literature.

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Guest post by Sylvia Segal

Sylvia is a music-lover and The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s most longstanding reader


Dear Fran,

Your blog’s 10th anniversary reminded me that I’ve been meaning to send you a musical message. Lockdown has meant a lot more listening time which, though solitary, has been a great pleasure.

As you know, I have a tendency to have mini love affairs with selected composers, meaning that temporarily I listen to little else. You’ll remember my ‘Chopin period,’ I’m sure. Before that there was Ravel. And Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Bach puts in an appearance regularly, as does Haydn, who always lifts my spirits. And so on.

Anyway, lately it’s been all about Schubert’s piano sonatas for me. Not necessarily the final three, but early and middle ones. Years ago, I bought a 7-CD set of them, played by Ingrid Haebler. The earliest sonata on there is no. 3, and already he’s modulating in a way that reminds me of a tightrope walker without a safety net! It makes me smile to hear him tie himself up in knots, only to untie them a moment later, as if by magic.

Beethoven famously remarked that the piano “couldn’t sing,” but I think Schubert put paid to that idea. (And Mendelssohn.) If you’re able, listen to the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in B major (D.575). It’s a song. It IS a song. A beautiful, sad one.

On the subject of whether the piano sings or not, I have never forgotten the study day that Robert Levin presented at the British Museum about the evolution of the piano. Focusing on the period that is his forte (sorry, pun), late 18th/early 19th century, he made the very interesting point that composers like Mozart and Haydn didn’t expect the piano to sing, they wanted it to SPEAK, in the manner of well-argued discourse or civilised conversation.

I was reminded of this in Paris in February, where I picked up a free copy of the New York Times in our hotel, and read an article about John Eliot Gardiner entitled “Treating Beethoven as a Revolutionary.” It was about rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in connection with Beethoven 250 (I expect those performances didn’t happen, sadly), and he said something that really struck me:

Another thing I think is important [as well as the clarity and exhilaration you can achieve with original instruments] is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that, in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.”

So interesting! I do often think of music as a language, and individual composers’ styles as their ‘handwriting.’ This wordless language has its own structure, vocabulary, grammar—none more so than the music composed around the time of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Haydn spoke it fluently and effortlessly, and we as listeners need to be familiar with the rules of the language before we can experience the thrill that comes when we hear them broken.

Beethoven and Schubert – both voracious readers – inherited this formal language. But I think they became less and less interested in the discourse/conversation aspect, focusing rather more on what Gardiner calls “dramatic narratives.”

Lockdown has afforded me time to think more about the music I’m listening to, which is one of the many good things that have come out of it. A good friend and I keep marvelling at how unconstrained we’ve felt (I know, a contradiction!), and how the extra time we’ve had has not been a burden. Rather, it’s been a gift.

I’ll leave you on that happy note.

With love and warmest congratulations on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s tenth birthday,

Sylvia


A note from The Cross-Eyed Pianist:

Sylvia is a good friend of mine and, when she lived in London, a very keen concert-goer, especially at the Wigmore Hall. It was Sylvia who encouraged me to start going to classical concerts again, when my son was at an age when he could be left more happily with a babysitter, and we have enjoyed many memorable concerts together. Sylvia was this blog’s first reader and remains a loyal supporter (and eagle-eyed proof-reader!).

 


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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.

guest post by Michael Johnson

It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?

Well, at first he might seem an unlikely idol for me, growing up in a small town in the flat, agricultural Midwest, too far from everything. My ears rang with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s recording of “Cry of the Wild Goose”, a mindless vehicle for the late crooner, but I ate it up. My five brothers and sisters and I played it over and over on our new 45-rpm console. It was one of the records that came free with the player.  There was also “Whoopie Ti-Yi-Yo” by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Only after I escaped from Indiana and moved to California for university education did I open myself to new worlds of music. I first discovered Baroque, an instantly accessible form that had me humming along and tapping both feet. Friends observed my head bobbing uncontrollably as Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Purcell, Corelli, Lully, Campra and others excited me.

Finally a colleague on the San Jose State University school newspaper took me aside and promised much better thrills – more satisfying than cannabis and completely legal. He had just come from a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and was still marveling at the experience. “You gotta hear this,” he gushed. “It will knock your socks off.” He was almost right.

I never lost my socks but over the next year I built up a complete library of Beethoven symphonies on vinyl LPs, moving backward from Nine to One. The scope and variety left me spinning, and I have never stopped exploring the rich oeuvre of symphonic, choral, solo piano and chamber music Ludwig left us.

In my early piano studies at university I played what every schoolgirl plays –  the Bagatelle “Für Elise”, moving on to his “Moonlight Sonata”. And by shameless cherry-picking, I plunged into parts of the “Diabelli Variations” and a few of his 32 piano sonatas, guided by tempo markings such as “Largo”, “Andante” and, my favorite, “Grave e maestoso”. The slower the better.

I gave up piano lessons when I grew tired of wandering around on the famous plateau students hit after the easy stuff is done. I have spent the rest of my life picking out passages of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt I catch on radio as I tell myself, “Hey, I could play that.” Sometimes I get the sheet music off the internet and start to work.

Now my CD collection is particularly rich in Beethoven. I am listening to the late string quartets as I write this, and his piano trios are among my favorites. Of course nothing beats the Ninth, or even the Fifth. I also relate to the emotional Seventh.

I gradually became a music writer and critic, keeping myself busy attending concerts and writing my reaction to the players’ efforts. The idea of a pianist alone on a spacious stage playing for an hour and a half from memory, no safety net, still strikes me as one of the great feats of human courage and accomplishment.

By chance, I have done interviews recently with two pianists who have performed the five Beethoven piano concertos from memory, conducted from the keyboard, in one day – François-Frédéric Guy and Rudolf Buchbinder. François also plays all the sonatas from memory over three weekends.

I liked Rudi’s dismissal of my praise for his “marathon” performances. “Ach,” he said, “it’s nothing special.” François said he is not running a marathon here, he is showing the audience how Beethoven’s creativity evolved.

Beethoven has a way of remaining ubiquitous. His work is eternal and musicians love performing it. New recordings appear like clockwork. In this crowded field, no one, in my opinion, has surpassed Wilhelm Kempf’s heart-stopping sonatas.

In many other ways Beethoven keeps entering my life. When I was based in Paris as an economic journalist I received news that my father was failing fast with lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking two packs a day of Lucky Strikes. We were never close, but I picked up the phone and asked my mother to put him on. Silence for a few minutes. She came back and said, “He is lying on the hardwood floor, the only place he can find comfort. He is listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.” He never made it to the phone. He died two days later.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Illustration by Michael Johnson