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Why all pianists should play Beethoven

I know it sounds dogmatic, especially coming from a person like me, yet I've come to believe this more and more now. 

 

I came to Germany with no expectations. Actually, I came here because I found no place back home where I could study. Almost like a last ditch effort, I rationalized that Germany is the place to be to study Western Classical Music, I hopped on that plane and never regretted that decision.

 

Doing my entrance exams, I was asked why I chose a Schubert sonata instead of a Beethoven sonata (entrance exams are big on sonatas). I said that I had nothing to say with the music of Beethoven, that all that could be said with Beethoven has already been said and done. Even if I had something to say, there are probably many other pianists who can do it better and have better things to say that I would. 

 

In retrospect, this was a wrong position to take. It borders on egotism and is a golden case of ignorance. If I had nothing to say with Beethoven, what would I have to say with Schubert? From my first year in Kassel's Musikakademie, I played Beethoven. I started with Beethoven's 12th sonata. In my second year, I played Beethoven's 5th Concerto (there's a slightly crazy story behind this, but for another time). Now in my third year, I learned Beethoven's 30th sonata, which I performed last Wednesday on the 4th of July.

This was the first time in my life where I performed a sonata in full. I've only ever performed one or two movements at most. This is a milestone for me. I'm the kind of curious person who will stare nested polyrhythms dead in the eye and navigate impossibly complicated polyphony. Still, the thought of Beethoven's sonatas, let alone late sonatas, make my knees buckle. 

 

Every year, my teacher (along with some other teachers in the piano faculty) help me with learning Beethoven. It's always a long process of learning and preparing for a coherent performance. Just last week, he said "Why should we play Beethoven differently from the way we play contemporary music?".

 

For the simple melodic materials that Beethoven use, often just simple intervals and scales, he was radically modern with the way he composed with them. The second variation in the last movement of Op. 109 consists of intervals broken and interspersed across the keyboard. This is a world away from the lyrical theme and absolutely modern beyond his time. 

Even the absolute first chord of the theme is voiced in such a modern arrangement. The notes E, B and G# are arranged in such away that they form the back bone of the harmonic series. Something that Chopin did with his left hand accompaniment very often. If Chopin was the prophet of spectralism, then Beethoven was the one who sent this prophet.

 

Learning Beethoven taught me to be creative with the sparse basic material, to feel what I'm playing with my fingertips, all this while being faithful to the text. Beethoven was one of the first composers to raise the status of composers to the levels of worship we give them today. He was also one of the few to show how, even with the simplest of music, one could be a fine musician. 

 

For these reasons, I encourage all pianists and musicians to learn Beethoven, even if you know you will not perform him ever, that no one will listen to you or that you have nothing to say. You will find things to say and discover music that might change your life. To this day, I still have nothing to say, but I get this feeling that nobody listens to me for what I have to say but for the music.

 

I hope you enjoy my performance of Beethoven's 30th Sonata, which I have embedded here. I have had the wonderful joy of playing in the Rothenditmolder Kirche in Kassel. I am also pleased to announce that for my last year, I will still be playing Beethoven! In fact, I will be preparing the Bagatelles Op. 126. I am looking forward to learning them and to be able to share them with you in the future.

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