A long Ode to Beethoven- When literature meets music

I am recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Because he takes my breath away. Because he does so frequently, and in a way no other musical or life experience can replicate. Because he do so through so many different heightened emotional states: despair in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata; warm-bloodedness in the second movement of the Sonata Op. 90; rage in the  Appassionata Sonata; sheer transcendence in the G Major Piano Concerto and most everything else he wrote. Because I can see no better way of losing myself than in these wonders. Because I have to.

Jonathan Biss

Victor Hugo once said: ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.’

I find myself here at my desk contemplating and wondering about life, the myriad emotions which are so uncontrollable and powerful, all of them triggered by the most random events, people and landscape. It’s been almost three hours since I started listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas while reading a book about him. Beethoven’s Shadow is a profound journey within the mind of an extraordinary maestro and the young and talented pianist Jonathan Biss. It is about the simple realization that music has the uncanny ability to communicate the greatest things in life, it grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go.

At the age of 33 years old, Jonathan Biss is a renowned American pianist, a teacher and a writer. Following in the footsteps of  many great pianists who’ve written about performing Beethoven, Biss’s short essay (around 18000 words) gives us four different perspectives on what it really means to play Beethoven. On a personal level it has to do with the deep connection that the pianist has with the composer and how throughout time his view on music changes. After all, he states, your relationship with music is not static. It changes as you change. On the other hand, on a perfomative level an important part of it is to establish a relationship with the live audience  because the interpreter has to communicate both what’s on the page and what’s inside you. There shouldn’t be a barrier between the people on the stage and the audience because it deters the latter to completely be engaged with the music.

What is striking about this book is Biss’s fluid narrative and his ability to talk about something oftentimes technical, thereby difficult to comprehend for those who aren’t expert, in such a way that allow anyone to understand Beethoven and  appreciate the beauty of his works.  While reading this essay you can clearly see the sense of awe, admiration and undying love that the young pianist has towards classical music. Just think about the way in which he describes the interpretations of two of the most magnificent pianists of the past two centuries: Arthur Schnabel (1882-1951) and Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991). Of Schnabel’s rendition of Beethoven’s Op.2 No. 3 he writes: ‘The slow movement opens with an immensely long phrase, divided up by a series of rests. Each phrase-within-the-phrase, divided up a series of rests. Each phrase-within-the-phrase is an inquiring one; only after 10 measures-and 11 interruptions!- is any resolution reached. What Schnabel finds in this music is not only a sensationally long arc and a visionary quality, but tenderness-picture a parent rocking a small child to sleep, and you will probably then be able to imagine the tone of “voice” Schnabel adopts here.’Beethoven's shadow

Equally, Serkin’s genius comes to light through Biss’s description: ‘Serkin’s music-making is a reminder that the microcosmic is different from-more than-  simply minutia. It is about the way  each note in a piece of music responds to the preceding note and inspires- the following one; the infinite gradations in sound and  attack one needs to define the music’s character, the tiny differences in articulation between multiple iterations of a theme, and the way they alter the theme’s essential nature. 

Beethoven’s shadow  stands as an interesting piece of writing because it reveals the difference between interpreting music and the creative process of writing about it. As a pianist or interpreter, you don’t get to compose as the music is already there. On the other hand, writing about it allowed Biss to better understand his relationship with Beethoven and with music in general, his feelings towards both. During an interview he once said: ‘writing is about blank pages that has to be filled with whatever is inside his head and make it tangible. There were all ‘about ‘things that I probably knew but were certainly clarified.’

Most composers are interested in the sensory, the tactile-what we can see, feel, touch. He is interested in what is beyond our perception. That over there, the galaxy, the infinite: That is Beethoven.


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