Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

When did I begin my love affair with the music of living composers? The moment I found Yvar Mikhashoff’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ CD of tango music for the piano. The smoky cover, the provocative title track – I was caught before I listened to a single piece. Ah, and what a collection! Tangos from multiple eras and in multiple styles. Tangos that spoke of something illicit, a smoky world of furtive late-night romance, smoky dance halls, and sensuality. These tangos represented a freedom I craved – freedom from the performance practice expectations of standard repertoire, and freedom from the years of insecurities and assumptions I brought to the music I’d been playing my whole life. Tangos broke the rules. I’d never danced a tango in my life, but I knew I needed to make music with the freedom I heard in these pieces.

I’d never worked on music by a living composer before I found this CD, but my love of this music was such that I set about tracking down the scores of my favourite pieces. Many of the tangos were unpublished, which meant I wrote to the composer to purchase a copy. Scott Pender’s tango, ‘Ms Jackson Dances for the World’ was one of these. After I received it, Scott and I kept corresponding. We became friends and have remained so for over a decade. And I loved his music – so much so that I eventually played, performed, and taught most of what he’s written for the piano. Ironically, although Chester Biscardi’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ was easier to find (it was published), I never felt I got inside it well enough to perform it publicly. It sat in my music collection, its provocative title and gorgeous writing teasing me with the promise of something I couldn’t quite grasp.

It took me over a decade to put ‘Incitation to Desire’ on a concert programme. I think this was because I needed to live more before I truly understood it. I needed to go tango dancing and feel the freedom and sensuality of the Argentine tango in my bones. I needed to perform and record Piazzolla tangos with my duo partner Molly Wheeler. And, on a deeper level, I needed to break a whole lot of rules. I needed to experience the judgment that comes from choosing to leave a marriage that had been on life-support for years. I needed to experience being swept off my feet by an unexpected grown-up romance that changed my entire life. In other words, I needed to know freedom before I could play it on the piano.

Because ‘Incitation to Desire’ is about sensuality and freedom. Much like the Argentine dance, it relies on the pianist’s ability to instinctively feel their way through the score. This piece begs to be played almost as an improvisation – just the same way that the Argentine tango is danced. It’s the pianist and the piano and the interplay of notes – sensuous, slinky, unapologetic. Chester Biscardi asks for a flexible interpretation of dynamics and tempi. I take this to mean that that this piece is best played from the senses, not the brain; instinct, not reason. In other words, you can’t play this music until you let yourself be seduced by it.

It was my No Dead Guys post about (and YouTube recording of) ‘Incitation to Desire’ that prompted Chester Biscardi to email and tell me how much he enjoyed my performance of it. That correspondence led to me learning ‘In Time’s Unfolding’ and ‘Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman)’, two pieces that, ironically, I still feel I had more of an innate understanding of than the tango that introduced me to Chester’s music. Best of all, Chet and I kept corresponding, and that correspondence blossomed into another friendship that I cherish.

I’ve never coached a student on ‘Incitation to Desire’; I’m not sure it can be done without introducing topics to a lesson that can get an instructor arrested. Furthermore, because it’s so improvisatory, the key to playing this piece well lies within each pianist’s personal experience. If they’ve lived it, they can play it. If not, no amount of musicianship or technique will bring this piece to life. I can, however, offer some general guidelines on how to navigate the score:

1) Don’t be in a hurry. This is slowly unfolding, sensuous music that can’t be forced by the pianist. All forward momentum must come from the sense that the power of the moment itself is what propels the music forward.

2) Don’t dig in too deeply on the scale passages. These are flourishes, the twirl of a tango skirt, a spin. They’re caresses, not demands.

3) Don’t start your accelerando too quickly at m. 29; you’ve got a very long way to do before you hit the end of it. This – like everything else in the piece – should feel inevitable and effortless.

4) Pay very close attention to the pedalling; it makes or breaks the piece.

5) If you’ve never danced the Argentine tango, watch some videos of it. This will explain the start/stop, slow/fast, gesture-driven nature of the score.

6) When you play it, drop all expectations of the piece, surrender to the music, and let it take you where it wants to go.

Sometimes the best way to find ourselves is to break a bunch of rules. Incitation to Desire gave me the permission I needed to follow my instincts rather than others’ expectations. It seduced me into a lifelong passion for the music of living composers. And even today, it reminds me to let moments and situation unfold naturally; it reminds me that the richest life (and my best playing) lies in releasing rigidity and entering the messy, beautiful, passionate dance of earthy, real life with my hands and heart wide open.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo 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.

She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.

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Chester Biscardi, composer


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Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth


Edna Stern’s latest release is a fascinating find. Beautifully performed, for sure, but those performances are led by an intriguing, impeccably realised idea.

The pieces on this disc are well-loved and oft-recorded: the first four ‘Impromptus’ (D899) and the ‘Moments Musicaux’ (D780). But Stern, following the courage of her convictions, has arrived at a new way of hearing them. Or perhaps, more accurately, a very old one.

The artist’s sleeve-notes explain the background at length, and if you buy this album, you’ll find they are an excellent read. So I will just try to summarise here. Broadly, Stern became disenchanted with modern digital recording – in particular, the facility to edit performances into ‘perfection’. To the non-expert listener, what can sound like a seamlessly executed rendition of a work is sometimes a painstakingly finessed collage from multiple takes. Flashes of divine inspiration that don’t conveniently occur within the same run-through are made to do so, after the fact.

This came to a head, Stern tells us, when working with a sound engineer who produced an edit that was stitched together to the point where she could barely recognise her own interpretation. For this project, then, each of the ten pieces is represented by a single, intact take. Of course, Stern recorded them several times in order to choose her favourite, but no artificial mix-and-match took place. She picked the versions she found the most interesting or appealing, if not necessarily the most accurate: the integrity and spirit of the performance outweighed the occasional stray note or tempo.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Stern’s booklet essay so much is the extremity of her position. While she acknowledges the value and skills of everyone involved, she calls that game-changing edit a ‘monster’, and likens the studio correction of mistakes to offering a performance from a robot over a human. It’s forcefully argued stuff.

And thought-provoking. Schubert-lovers who are tripping over Impromptu recordings – anyone with shelves (or hard-drives) full of versions of their favourite works: what are we looking for? I realise there’s an element for many of seeking an ideal version that matches the one in their head, of looking for the ‘best’… and I don’t envy critics who have to make these sorts of comparisons all the time. But what it’s really about, surely, is hearing the works you love ‘renewed’, enjoying the surprise and delight of seemingly infinite reinterpretations of the same music.

You could argue that, most of the time, these differences survive modern recording techniques. What must be Stern’s worst nightmare – correcting every error or deviation from the score so that every pianist’s Schubert CD comes out identical to all the others – hasn’t come to pass. But by removing the safety net, Stern has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts – will other classical musicians follow suit and subject their unvarnished playing to scrutiny?

I use the word ‘classical’ here deliberately. Pristine clarity may be the common goal in this genre, but over on the rock side of the fence, many acts have often wanted to go back to the source, in their search for authenticity. There’s the huge number of bands who went through the ‘Unplugged’ rite of passage in the 90s. There are producers like Steve Albini, who seems to carry out the intensive labour upfront, listening to his clients and finding exactly the right place for the microphones in the room – then documenting the resulting live sound, with staggering results. There’s the formidable roster of groups – perhaps most famously, the White Stripes – who have made records at London’s Toe Rag Studios, renowned for their totally analogue set-up.

There is a rock-snob trap here, of course: “when it’s me, it’s authenticity – when it’s you, it’s nostalgia”. But Stern is totally alive to this, seeking to recapture the sound of the recordings she loved most during her early development. Has she succeeded?

When you start ‘Schubert on tape’, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just lowered the stylus on to vinyl, or pressed the clunky play button on a cassette player. You hear the room before the piano. Instead of a CD’s usual dead silence, you hear an ambient noise that I instantly want to describe as ‘warmth’: it’s not disruptive, there’s no hiss or clicking, just a hushed presence that replaces any potential dryness or sterility.

There’s no doubt about it. I was hit by two waves of entirely pleasurable nostalgia. One, true: my youth, playing records and tapes in my room. Two, false: the feeling evoked by Stern of being at a Schubertiade, hearing the composer perform his work in intimate, informal surroundings.

Because once the music starts, you are there in the room (especially if using a decent pair of headphones). You can hear some of the pedal work – towards the end of Impromptu No. 4, for example, there’s a passage where this almost becomes a percussion feature – and the rise and fall of the keys, even (I think) accompanied once or twice by the click of a fingernail. This sustained, audible ‘physicality’ really brings home the effort involved in a good performance and, in the salon of the imagination, makes you feel genuinely close to the player.

I think there is also a pleasing effect on the dynamics. I was reminded of something the rock writer David Hepworth said on a podcast, when discussing the merits of vinyl over CD – almost his instant response was: “The drums don’t hurt.” Analogue recording as evidenced here has a generosity of scope – I can hear that Stern is across every pp and ff, and all points between, but the sound never becomes a bang or a whimper – it’s all accommodated in the bandwidth.

We hear chiming, keening top notes and a gorgeous bass rumble – particularly in, say, Impromptu No. 2 or Moments Musicaux No. 2 – reminiscent of a fortepiano (I was interested to read that Stern also plays this instrument). The dexterity and sensitivity of Stern’s playing is still immaculately conveyed, shining through – while benefiting from – the tape’s ambience.

As a result, I think Stern’s particular strengths and this style of recording are perfectly aligned. A successful experiment, then – I look forward to seeing the research continue, and hearing which composer becomes its next subject.

Schubert on Tape is available on the Orchid Classics label

This review first appeared on sister site ArtMuseLondon.com


105491206_266430451442172_334752493078903436_nAdrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else.

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott


An article in response to Andrew Eales’ excellent article Making Peace with your Inner Musician, which was in turn prompted by this quote from the Bhagavad Bita: “Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice…But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace

I’ve already written about mechanical practice versus knowledge and clarity. But I find I am developing my thoughts on this even more with regard to some of my students. In his article Andrew Eales’ discusses having less of an attachment to and more of an appreciation of results and goals; to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves and our piano playing journey; and to find ways to enjoy our playing and what it gives both to ourselves and others. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

I read this quote from the Gita and understood it slightly differently; I interpreted it to mean that in letting go of attachments to goals we let go of those goals altogether; taking away ALL judgement about our playing (even with regards to right or wrong notes) and immersing ourselves in the moment; surely it is this that this leads to immediate peace? I’m not saying that there are not times and situations when results are useful and necessary (whether extrinsic or intrinsically motivated), but that there can be another option for pianists.

As COVID struck I noticed my teaching changed; I was more interested in my students being able to play music than any amount of right notes or technical achievements (hard to do the latter online anyway), so we found ourselves focussing on the sounds, using improvising and ear games. I have already written about how this can help with improvising so I won’t reiterate all those points here, other
than to say if a student can withhold judgement about their playing then they can make music, however little they know or practice; when unable to concentrate on notes on a page, many of my students found solace through the piano and kept playing through both lockdowns.

More recently though, one of my students had an injury and couldn’t play, but got fed up with this and wanted to just get her fingers on the keys, so we have been talking about moving away from any ‘result’ at all, trying instead to focus on being in the moment, and the process of actually playing, whatever that playing is (i.e. whether improvising or learning a piece), and relinquishing all judgement about whether it is good, or right, or even sounds ‘nice’ (there is plenty of published classical music, or jazz improvising, from highly respected musicians and composers, of which I don’t like the sound, so if they can produce such music, why can’t we?!). The student is not learning for either a concert or exam, so why get upset about the notes…? Radical! We can aim at the right notes (assuming we are learning a composed piece), but judge ourselves less, or not at all, for getting them wrong, and enjoy the process in any case.

The Alexander Technique talks about ‘end gaining’; the mistake we make in focusing on the end result rather than how we get there. Understood correctly this is a huge part of how the Alexander Technique can benefit a piano (or any other) student. I think it can go further than aiding our clarity and technical grasp of the music and take us to a place where we are in the moment and finding peace, whether it is in enjoying the physical nature of playing the piano (which is one of the things I myself love about the piano, whereas I didn’t like the particular physical demands of playing the flute, for instance) or getting absorbed in the moods we can evoke. Sometimes we might enjoy the former but not like the latter we produce but does it matter; if it is ephemeral then is has gone in a whisper but we have lived the moment with peace and pleasure.

If you want a left brain reason to do this then be reassured, letting go of all our preconceptions and ‘goals’ completely can produce much more freedom; from judgement, from tightness of technique, or from musical and physical rigidity, and lead one to being more comfortable at the keyboard from whence ‘traditional’
results and goals are more easily attained.

So along with Andrew’s suggestion to be kinder of and more appreciative of where we end up, I also encourage you to be more mindful of, and kinder to yourself, in the moment. Take away an interest in the results completely, and with it any judgement of how you get there or what you are doing. As I’ve said once before and which reflects Andrew’s own words, once we get out of the way, there is only the music, whether is it ours, or Mozart’s.


Alexandra Westcott, BA, FRISM, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London.

Twitter @MissAMWestcott

Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.

Guest post by Walter Witt


As a pianist and admirer of Ravel, my visit to Ravel’s house and museum in Montfort L’Amaury several years ago could be considered a sort of pilgrimage.

Ravel purchased the house on the outskirts of Paris, called “Le Belvédère,” in 1921, as a respite from frenzied Parisian social life, a place to entertain his friends, to seal himself off from the world to meditate and to compose. He lived there until his death in 1937. Ravel carried out extensive design work on the house throughout the 1920s.

A deeper understanding of Ravel as a composer, as a master of colour counterpoint, an ornamentalist with miniaturist inclinations, the non-Impressionist and non-European allusions that he employed in his music, can be gleaned from Ravel’s own decorative practices at his home and garden at Le Belvédère. Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.

Le Belvédère is what you might call a confidential address, accessible only on certain days and in small groups. Once inside, you can see why. Though the house is picturesque, it’s no chateau. A panorama of hills and forest stretches out beyond the cobbled streets of Montfort-l’Amaury. For Ravel, it was the view from the balcony that first sold him on the house.

The composer was in his mid-40s and at a low ebb when he bought Le Belvédère. He had failed to win the coveted Prix de Rome three times, losing out each time to composers whose names are hardly known today. Determined to serve his country in the first World War, he had tried to sign up for the air force, but was refused on grounds of height. (Ravel’s brocade waistcoats are displayed near the entrance – at 5 foot 2, he was every inch the dandy).

Finally, he was allowed to drive trucks at the Front. He caught dysentery. His beloved mother died in his absence and he felt he had abandoned her. For months, he never touched a manuscript.

Instead, he threw himself into the design and decoration of this house – his first – re-shaping it to reflect his highly individual tastes and personality. He created his own Art Deco wallpaper. He arranged his collection of singular objects, arranging them for harmony or piquancy, creating patterns for the eye. He immersed himself in gardening books, tended to his orchard and turned the sloping garden behind the house into a Japanese style garden.

Ravel was an inveterate antique hunter. He’d invite friends to admire the latest treasures in his sitting room, before revealing how much – or rather, how little – he’d paid for them. The cabinet of Creil et Montereau picture plates, the antique Chinese cups, the drapes, the furniture …everything feels curated, elegant – and personal. Often, homes of famous people feel as if they have been reconstituted from the original. Not this one. It feels as if the owner has just stepped out to buy a baguette or a pack of Gauloises.

Upon entering the house, the first impression is that of a doll-like miniaturism. The stairway and hallways are tight. Throughout the house, the rooms are snug. There’s even a small, secret annex off the music room behind a cabinet (handy for Ravel to whisk manuscripts away from prying eyes).

In the music room, Ravel’s rosewood piano, an Érard which I played during my visit, is still in good condition and kept in tune. The piano fills most of the space. His mother’s portrait hangs above the piano. A portrait of Ravel as a young boy hangs across the room, facing the pianist. Surrounded by portraits of his family and silhouettes of composers, this is where Ravel composed Boléro, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, the Concerto in G and L’enfant et les sortilèges. On the piano are more of his treasures – a collection of snuff boxes, butterfly wing art and a rare 19th-century scene made of spun glass, a speciality of Nevers.

While it was here that Ravel wrote his most famous work, Boléro, the work most embedded in the property to my mind is the opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. To walk around the house and garden is almost to step into the magical arc of the opera – its first act featuring teapots, armchairs and wallpaper that come to life, its second moving to a night-time garden brimming with cricket calls and croaking frogs – as well as to feel its unforced mix of playfulness and profound seriousness.

In fact, the longer one stays in the house the more one begins to sense the “small wonder” of Ravel: the connoisseur’s mind, the watchmaker’s heart, the eye for beauty and detail, the feeling for pathos. The suggestion of a hidden interior that is bigger than it appears from the outside.

There is a small room full of Asian objects. The collection seems like a mix of objects from China, Japan and Indonesia as well. The extent of his collection is quite impressive, and what was immediately obvious is the almost obsessive way he placed the objects symmetrically in the room. This symmetrical pattern is evident in almost every other part of Le Belvédère.

Ravel in fact gave us a small opening onto Le Belvédère’s aesthetic, as reported in the Dutch tabloid De Telegraaf in 1931. According to the journalist, Ravel asks, “Don’t you think that it slightly resembles the gardens of Versailles, as well as a Japanese garden?” Then the correspondent connects the composer’s question to the idea of miniaturism: “Doesn’t this remark reflect upon the entire man, on the one hand, filled with memories of the stately, joyous century of Couperin and Rameau, yet on the other coupled with a refined sensitivity and miniature workmanship which conjure up Japan?” (quoted in Orenstein, Arbie, ed. 1990. A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, p 475). It is safe to say that Ravel’s decorations in Le Belvédère were themselves a latent allusion to the miniaturism connected with France’s eighteenth-century musical past and the twilight of the ancien régime subtly entwined with the art nouveau aesthetic recognized as “le Japon.” Or, as the Ravel scholar Roger Nichols, stated in his biography of Ravel: “In his life this manifested itself in the division between bouts of socializing, at home or in Paris, and periods of hermetically sealed composition; in his music, between tradition and innovation, between knowing the rules and knowing how to break them. The lifestyle division was no different from that of most composers, for whom long stretches of uninterrupted time are vital (and in the modern world, increasingly hard to achieve). The divisions within Ravel’s music itself are much more interesting, and go to the very heart of its beauty and power” (Nichols, Ravel – A life,  2011, p. 351).

After Ravel’s death in 1937, his faithful housekeeper kept everything precisely as it was. Downstairs, in his smart monochrome bathroom, his toothbrush is still waiting in its beaker.

La Maison musée de Maurice Ravel



Walter Witt is an American-born classical pianist and educator based in France. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figures in classical music today.

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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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