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Beethoven… yet again?

Performing Beethoven op. 53 and op. 111 at Dartington International School and Festival on Tuesday, 16th August

It was very early on after I moved to London when I heard the expression “a Marmite composer”. It sounded funny, like a lot of expressions do when you try to speak a new language that you don’t fully understand, and to which you usually respond with a smile and as neutral an answer as possible. Very soon I learnt that Marmite was a very particular flavour used in dipping sauces, seasoning powders and other such culinary enterprises. But what does it have to do with music, and composers like Beethoven?

Well, I found out that the thing with Marmite is that it seemed to have avid supporters, as well as haters. When applied to composers, it seemed to designate an artist whose output was either loved or detested, never appreciated half-way. I presume there are such composers in the history of music, but I never thought of Beethoven as being one of them. Surely, everybody loves Beethoven… or do they?

People respond differently to music, and huge musical figures such as Beethoven are perceived at very different levels. There is a part of society that would recognise his name, would know the tragic story of his deafness, and could possibly hum the Ode to Joy theme. There will be others who will get excited at the opening bars of the 5th Symphony, the Emperor Concerto or the Moonlight Sonata. And there are the more hard-core music lovers, the regular concert goers who devour the late piano sonatas, the string quartets, and everything else in between. I think it is relatively safe to assume that at all the different levels, people are very enthusiastic about Beethoven.

Curiously, it is musicians that sometimes get slightly blasé about the Titan. All those scale passages, arpeggio patterns… it gets a little tedious. I don’t know if this is the effect of experiencing all the music that has been written after Beethoven. Some musicians find a Beethoven piece unappealing, because they would rather be enthralled by some Rachmaninov or Chopin, or prefer the unexpectedness of Bartok or the unusual harmonies of Fauré. Without any disrespect to the other composers, I would point out that we owe all their achievements to the great guy from Bonn! He laid out the foundation.

I cannot pretend to be a Beethoven expert. There is a mountain of music to explore before I can start lecturing people about it. I just know I get enormously excited every time I play Beethoven. The first time I played the Emperor Concerto, I was jumping with over-excitement while listening to the orchestral introduction and I hadn’t yet played my entry.

I also remember on one occasion playing a Beethoven chamber piece with string players that moaned about their parts, mainly about the scarcity of interesting material to play. A lot of Beethoven is “uninteresting” at one level. What is so interesting about the beginning of the Waldstein? Or its second movement? Or op. 111’s second movement? Nothing much… very few notes, very simple harmony, very basic patterns. Look at the development section in the first movement of the Emperor Concerto: simplistic figuration in both hands, very slow harmonic pace… And yet, there is something that gets my heart racing every single time I perform these pieces, something that overwhelms the mind and is palpable, I can feel it tingling underneath my fingertips.

Heaps of books have been written about what makes Beethoven great. To me, the greatness of Beethoven relies in his power to build… to build an emotion, a sense of suspense or tension, to build a feeling of utmost nobility… His music lives in the space created by all the notes and harmonies, simple as they may be. Take the opening of the Waldstein Sonata for example: would the E-major second subject sound so angelic and noble, had it not been for the extraordinary build-up of tension, anxiety and drama that precedes it? The same principle applies on a much more extended level to the Arietta of the last sonata, where everything is built on the simplest imaginable tune: three slow notes. And yet, the extraordinary construction that ensues is music of transcendental power.

So often people ask “But what is it about? What is the Waldstein Sonata or the op. 111 sonata about?”. I wouldn’t know what to answer, and I would be surprised if anybody could. I believe that it’s nearly impossible to put into words what this great music is about. To paraphrase a famous quote, if Beethoven could have expressed with words what he did through his music, he wouldn’t have bothered composing it. It might just be that this is precisely the point. Maybe the power of this music resides precisely in its abstractness. It is not really about anything tangible. It is not describing a landscape, it is not narrating a story, it is not an allegory to a literary work. It’s music that speaks directly to the heart, without any intermediary, and we are invited to experience it in the most personal way, without any prepared programme.

Instead of trying to dissect what makes Beethoven great, I am just grateful for the incredible chance to share my enthusiasm for this music with other people that like it… which hopefully is everybody!

I am about to perform two of Beethoven sonatas in four days, following a lecture given by Alfred Brendel, a man who knows more about Beethoven than I could ever have learnt, even if I had spent every minute of my life studying it. No panic…