Beethoven Hero is a continuing exploration of the man, his music, and his extraordinary reach across time and space. The trilogy takes us on a journey through history and around the world, telling stories of the enduring power of Beethoven’s creations—of the ways they live within us and transcend the boundaries that separate us.
The legacy of Beethoven—in our personal lives and in the public conflicts, tragedies and occasional triumphs that define our times—is complex, and Beethoven | Hero explores this complexity. The first part of the trilogy,Following the Ninth (2013), followed the music to China, Chile, Germany and Japan. The second part, Love & Justice, takes us to Chile once more, using Beethoven’s Fidelio to explore the darkness of political repression and the way Chileans tried to sustain hope in the shadow of Pinochet. The third part, Last Will and Testament, will follow in the footsteps of Beethoven’s powerful Late Quartets.
While I do believe that Beethoven’s music somehow captures universal virtues—the courageous and passionate will to overcome all defeats, spiritual and physical—I am also open to the fact that I am living within the mythos of Beethoven the Hero. His image, both biographical and musical, continues to pull us toward the man and his creations. We puzzle over the man, and we embrace the music in an attempt, always incomplete, to understand who we are as humans, in pain, in love, in joy, in accents both spiritual and sensual at equal turns.
At a time when art and music are disappearing from school curricula, we are designing the Beethoven | Hero trilogy to be used in schools across the country to improve students’ understanding of the arts and of the historical contexts in which they are created and experienced. Beethoven | Hero tells the story of how art—emerging from the collision of history and flawed, brilliant humanity—outlives its creator to challenge, inspire and occasionally transform us.
At a festival in Zichron Yaakov, pianist Malcolm Bilson will try to prove his contention that 300-year-old pianos can produce more faithful sounds than Steinways.
Let’s say you’re a pianist, or a devoted fan of classical piano music. And let’s say that to your ears, Steinway pianos are the best in the field. Would you be satisfied exclusively with a Steinway? The American pianist and musicologist Malcolm Bilson, for one, talking about how to choose a piano, offers the example of the person in charge of tuning the collection of antique pianos at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where Bilson is a professor of music. That piano tuner, he explains in a talk that can be found online, also does a better job of tuning modern Steinways than someone who specializes only in modern Steinways. It’s like a mechanic who deals only with Mercedes cars and thus knows less in the aggregate than a mechanic who is familiar with many different cars.
In regard to Mozart’s “expressive instructions,” as Bilson terms them, the key point concerns groups of sounds that are meant to sound connected, like a single “singing” line, as opposed to those that are to be separated. An illuminating example is the opening phrase of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. The composer’s direction to separate the first three connected notes from the next three can be executed nicely only on the fortepiano, Bilson notes and demonstrates. Whereas on the modern piano, the separation will sound clumsy, fragmented, “like a hiccup.”
Beethoven’s piano sonatas will also definitely benefit from being played on a period instrument, Bilson says in reply to another question. In the case of Beethoven, it’s crucial to choose the correct fortepiano, he points out, because there are vast differences between the first sonatas and the later ones (which were composed for very different fortepianos). Steinways or other contemporary pianos are not suitable for playing the sonatas, Bilson avers, one reason being that very brief powerful notes (sforzando), such as Beethoven calls for, cannot be effectively produced on modern pianos, on which the sound develops slowly.
Overall, Bilson says, there are more nuances of loudness in the fortepiano, though modern pianos are preferable in terms of color changes. However, what’s important in Mozart and Beethoven, he says, is not the changes of color but the articulations, as previously explained. “It is difficult to execute those changes on a modern piano,” he says.
From the archive, 23 April 1827: Following the death of Beethoven, the Observer publishes a personal account of the eccentric and prodigiously talented composer.
He has always a small paper book with him, and what conversation takes place is carried on in writing. In this, too, although it is not lined, he instantly jots down any musical idea which strikes him. These notes would be utterly unintelligible, even to another musician, for they have no comparative value; he alone has in his own mind the thread by which he brings out of this labyrinth of spots and circles the richest and most astounding harmonies. The moment he is seated at the piano, he is evidently unconscious that there is anything in existence but himself and his instrument; and considering how very deaf he is, it seems impossible he should hear all he plays. Accordingly, when playing very piano, he often does not bring out a single note. He hears it himself in the ‘mind’s ear.’ While his eye, and the almost imperceptible motion of his fingers, show that he is following out the strain in his own soul through all its dying gradations, the instrument is actually as dumb as the musician is deaf.
I have heard him play, but to bring him so far required some management, so great is his horror of being any thing like exhibited. Had he been plainly asked to do the company that favour, he would have flatly refused; he had to be cheated into it. Every person left the room, except Beethoven and the master of the house, one of his most intimate acquaintances. These two carried on a conversation in the paper book, about bank stock. The gentleman, as if by chance, struck the keys of the open piano, beside which they were sitting, gradually began to run over one of Beethoven’s own compositions, made a thousand errors, and speedily blundered one passage so thoroughly, that the composer condescended to stretch out his hand and put him right. It was enough; the hand was on the piano; his companion immediately left him, on some pretext, and joined the rest of the company, who, in the next room, from which they could see and hear everything, were patiently waiting the issue of this tiresome conjuration.
23 April 1827.
We find, in Russell’s Tour in Germany, the following account of the celebrated musical composer, Beethoven, whose recent death, in circumstances of poverty and distress, alleviated only by English charity, has attracted so much notice. The author seems to have met with him in 1822:
“Beethoven is the most celebrated of the living composers in Vienna, and, in certain departments, the foremost of his day. His powers or harmony are prodigious. Though not an old man, he is lost to society, in consequence of his extreme deafness, which has rendered him almost unsocial. The neglect of his person which he exhibits gives him a somewhat wild appearance. His features are strong and prominent; his eye is full of rude energy; his hair, which neither comb nor scissor seem to have visited for years, overshadows his broad brow in a quantity and confusion to which only the snakes round a Gorgon’s head offer a parallel.
Creation History of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 3.
A Beethoven letter from Baden to Ries, dated July 14, 1804, hints at a rehearsal at Schuppanzigh’s on Wednesday, the 18th of July, for which Beethoven wanted to “take care” to be there. It was, in fact, Ries’ rehearsal of Piano Concerto No. 3. Let us refer to Ries’ own report:
“Beethoven had given me his beautiful Concerto in C minor (Op. 37) in manuscript so that I might make my first public appearance as his pupil with it; and I am the only one who ever appeared as such while Beethoven was alive. . . . Beethoven himself conducted, but he only turned the pages and never, perhaps, was a concerto more beautifully accompanied. He had two large rehearsals. I had asked Beethoven to write a cadenza for me, but he refused and told me to write one myself and he would correct it. Beethoven was satisfied with my composition and made few changes; but there was an extremely brilliant and very difficult passage in it, which, though he liked it, seemed to him too venturesome, wherefore he told me to write another in its place.
A week before the concert he wanted to hear the cadenza again. I played it and floundered in the passage; he again, this time a little ill-naturedly, told me to change it. I did so, but the new passage did not satisfy me; I therefore studied the other, and zealously, but was not quite sure of it. When the cadenza was reached in the public concert Beethoven quietly sat down. I could not persuade myself to choose the easier one.
When I boldly began the more difficult one, Beethoven violently jerked his chair; but the cadenza went through all right and Beethoven was so delighted that he shouted ‘Bravo!’ loudly. This electrified the entire audience and at once gave me a standing among the artists. Afterwards, while expressing his satisfaction he added: ‘But all the same you are willful! If you had made a slip in the passage I would never have given you another lesson!” (Thayer: 355)
Imagine being there! It must have been marvellous!!!
With respect to Beethoven’s first three works in this category, Thayer further has to report that the first two were performed in Berlin and Frankfort/Main within two yeas and the third in Berlin in late 1804, while Piano Concerto No. 3 was published by the Kunst-und Industrie-Comptoir in 1804 and dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, Beethoven’s cherished “royal pianist” friend.
There can only be added one more not with respect to the first Piano Concertos, namely by Ries who reported:
“I recall only two instances in which Beethoven told me to add a few notes to his composition: once in the theme of the rondo of the ‘Sonate Pathetique’ (Op. 13) and again in the theme of the rondo of his first Concerto in C major, where he gave me some passages in double notes to make it more brilliant. He played this last rondo, in fact, with a expression peculiar to himself.. . . ” (Thayer: 367).
As far as first references to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto are concerned, Barry Cooper reports with respect to early 1804:
“Amongst first sketches for Leonore are very early ones for three major works that were not completed for several years and had to wait until 1808 for their public premiere: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Fourth Piano Concerto” (Cooper: 138).
Cooper further reports that the sequence in which Beethoven worked on his major works of that period in the year 1806 saw him beginning with his work on his Fourth Piano Concerto, namely after the revision of his opera Fidelio/Leonore (thus in winter and spring of 1806). (Thayer places Beethoven’s start of his work on this Piano Concerto into the year 1805 [Thayer: 392]). Cooper further explains that during this period, Beethoven was not using a sketchbook, but rather only loose leaves, and that many of them may have been lost, so that the progress he made with this work can not be easily traced. His first sketch from the beginning of 1804 was supposed to only have stretched over five bars, that on July 5, 1806, however, a first score was completed, since Beethoven offered this work to Breitkopf and Härtel in his letter of July 5, 1806 (Cooper: 155).
Full article here:
In Search of Lost Sounds-Why you’ve never really heard the “Moonlight” Sonata.
By Jan Swafford.
You find the denizens sitting silently and waiting in the old library. They look lonely, huddled against the midwinter chill, until they start to speak. All of them are old. Some of them were once noted for their voice and personality, but now they are remembered mainly in obscure pages of history. Some of them are spindly and whispery, others burly and assertive. They used to be companions of famous people. Their intimates included Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Debussy.
Which is to say: This library is filled with the pianos great composers wrote for. Instruments like these were etched in the composers’ consciousness; they were co-creators of splendid music.
Their retirement home lies in a little town in central Massachusetts. They aren’t allowed to molder, however—their supervisors keep them active.
In 1976, Michael Frederick, once an East Asian history major and a harpsichord buff, and his musical wife, Patricia, bought an old piano, a British Stodart built around 1830. It needed major restoration, and because Michael had been building harpsichords as a hobby since his college days he decided to work on it himself. Then they bought another 19th-century piano, and another, and so on. You know how it is with obsessions.
In this excellent article Jan Swafford explains how hearing piano music from the 18th and 19th centuries played on the historical pianos of the time- what we know call the fortepiano- greatly enhances our listening experiences. These pianos were not only vastly different to the modern concert grand but they were different to each other! Each piano maker created a piano that had its own special sound and characteristics. What our ancestors enjoyed back then was a far greater variety of sound and musical experience than what we have today. Pianos today are very standardised and something has been lost. Until you hear the sound of an historical piano then you don’t know what you are missing!
These honourable instruments co- created arguably the greatest music that has ever been written- I think they don’t deserve to sit silent, but to be played, loved and cherished.
A theme Michael Frederick often returns to is standardization. Why should everything be the same? Why should three or four piano makers, however splendid, especially the Steinways that inhabit the majority of concert halls, dominate the scene?
To be sure, Steinways are tremendous instruments and have earned their glory. But should any one brand be that dominant? A modern piano is a matter of iron and steel and high-tech and some degree of assembly line. In the days of Beethoven and Schubert, it was a matter of one man or woman (such as the legendary Nannette Streicher) with hammers, saws, planes, and chisels, and there were myriad visions of what a piano could be. Stephen Porter notes that now in Europe a number of artisanal makers are creating first-rate reproductions of old instruments.
So what makes the fortepiano special?
When I made some observation to the effect of, “the piano was in the middle of its evolution in Beethoven’s lifetime,” he pointed out with some heat that this wasn’t the case. The state of the piano was a variety of national, local, and house traditions moving forward at the same time. During the 19th century, Viennese pianos were noted for their lightness of touch and tone and British pianos for a more robust build, touch, and sound; French pianos lay somewhere between. Within those parameters of local taste, each maker had a distinctive style and a proprietary bag of tricks. For one example, Mozart’s favorite maker, Walter, would leave his soundboards outside all winter; the ones that cracked went into the stove.
When composers wrote for these instruments they sometimes loved them and sometimes chafed at their limitations, but in any case they wrote for those sounds, that touch, those bells and whistles. From old instruments, performers on modern pianos can get important insights into the sound image that Mozart, Schubert, et al., were aiming for.
But music from the 18th and 19th centuries doesn’t just sound different now than on the original instruments; some of it can’t even be played as written on modern pianos. One example is the double-octave glissando in the last movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata.
With the light action and shallow key dip of a period Viennese piano you can plant your thumb and little finger on the octave and slide to the left, and there it is. Given the much heavier action and deeper key dip of a modern piano, if you tried that today you’d dislocate something. Every pianist has a dodge for that passage. It’s said that before the glissando Rudolf Serkin would discreetly spit on his fingers.
The prime example of what I’m talking about is perhaps the most famous piece ever written: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Hector Berlioz called its murmuring, mournful first movement, “one of those poems that human language does not know how to interpret.”
At the beginning, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustain pedal through the whole first movement, so the strings are never damped.
With the pianos of Beethoven’s time, on which the sustain of the strings was shorter than today, the effect was subtle, one harmony melting into another. On a modern piano, with its longer sustain, the effect of holding the pedal down would be a tonal traffic jam. Today you have to fake the effect, and it never quite works as intended.
The sound is startlingly different from a modern piano and takes a while to get used to. These instruments were mostly played in small to medium-size rooms. The sound is intimate; you hear wood and felt and leather.
The voicing is varied through the registers rather than the homogenous sound of modern pianos.
On the Katholnig, the effect of holding the pedal down in the “Moonlight” has a ghostly effect, most obvious in the longer-sustaining bass notes that can sound like a distant gong. All these elements of the pianos Beethoven knew shaped the music in the first place, including the way he picked out high and low notes around the murmuring figure in the middle of the keyboard.
Let’s compare pianos on another monumental Beethoven piano sonata, No. 23, the “Appassionata,” from 1805. The later sonata is a story of voids, abysses, hopes rising only to be crushed, one of the supreme tragic works in the keyboard literature.
But as much as anything, the piece is about the piano itself, especially the colors of its registers. It’s generally understood that after Beethoven was given a state-of-the-art Erard in 1803, his piano music got more ambitious and exploratory (even as he groused about its heavy French action)
Around 1820 Beethoven secured a Viennese instrument by Conrad Graf, partly because he was seriously deaf by then and Graf made the loudest pianos in town. Pianist Stephen Porter is not a period specialist, but he has been soloing on a Graf in the collection’s concerts since 2002. (This particular instrument’s first owners were the Sonnleithner family in Vienna, known to history for their connection to Beethoven and Schubert.)
Porter talks about the transparent sound of old pianos, the three-dimensional quality of the registers from silvery high to booming low–so different from the homogenized voicing of modern instruments.
In the whirlwind last movement of the “Appassionata,” Porter says it’s as if the Graf is straining to contain the music, threatening to fly apart in the attempt. That, of course, is the effect Beethoven was aiming for: a certain desperation.
That may be the most exciting and appropriate version of the “Appassionata” ending I’ve heard, and it’s the piano as well as the performer that makes it happen. It’s hard to make a Steinway sound anything but elegant; it’s not so good at hair-raising.
Full article here:
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy- BBC Documentary