Beethoven Is Dead And He Doesn’t Care About You.

A few years ago, I was in repertoire class in Adelaide, when a postgraduate student was asked to play a piece by Beethoven she had been working on for us. Her response has stayed with me ever since:

“I wouldn’t want to do Beethoven a disservice.”

Why has it stayed with me? Because instead of being completely honest and saying she wasn’t prepared enough, or felt uncomfortable playing a work in development mode (completely understandable), she took the exit route which is the excuse of choice for so many musicians today.

Doing a disservice to a deceased composer is akin to worrying about how bored sardines in a tin can are. Put simply, Beethoven really, really, does not care how you play his music. Because he’s dead. And even if he was alive, the least of his concerns (putting aside the fact he was deaf and therefore probably not a leading source of information on how you play his music) would have been a young pianist in South Australia playing one of his works-in-progress.

Of course, there are stories of Beethoven being a fairly hard task master but the simple fact is, dedicating every decision you make as a musician to the pursuit of satisfying the desires of a deceased composer is, well, a pretty soft excuse.

There is a wonderful paradox present in music performance that could make even the most religious blush. That is, the desire to play pre-20th Century music in the most ‘accurate’ way possible on instruments and in venues that weren’t designed or possible when the pieces were composed. This fad come into being during the 20th Century due to a huge variety of reasons - contemporary composers became more prescriptive; recordings allowed aural reflection not previously possible; historical performance research gained popularity; schooling and competitions required a more objective measure for performers etc. - the list is endless.

To instantly ridicule this huge fallback that musicians constantly cling onto though - that of the ‘playing historically accurate’, all we need to do is look at the release date of the first Steinway D Concert Grand Piano: 1884.

And when did Beethoven die? 1827.

What was his keyboard instrument? A fortepiano. Without going into technical aspects, basically, the instrument was much smaller, featured less keys, had no cast iron frame, and a slightly less advanced action. It had far less resonance, and was designed to be played in far smaller venues than the ones we hear him in now.

Dutch fortepianist Bart van Oort gives a fascinating example of how actually, Beethoven was a sonic genius who utilised his contemporary technology to perfection in one chord: the very first from the ‘Pathetique' Sonata, Op. 13. Following the exact pedal and dynamic markings, and most logical tempo decision, the fortepiano sound decays at the exact pace required for the following chords to emerge like a ghostly figure. On a concert grand piano, the pianist must execute this chord by manipulating the damper pedal to try and get rid of all the noise from the initial chord. Compare the two below:

Fortepiano

Modern grand piano

So already, by playing on a modern piano, we’ve changed what Beethoven wanted. We’re realising his music on an instrument that he perhaps imagined, but had no realistic concept of. The concept isn’t all that far from Wendy Carlos’ seminal electronic album, Switched-on-Bach (Bach played on an early Moog synthesiser), yet no one is claiming her performance of the Brandenburg concerti to be historically representative.

Some of the greatest pianists and musicians in the world - far greater than me - do still prescribe to this ‘one-answer-suits-all’ method of making musical decisions - the great Alfred Brendel for one. But their message of being as faithful to the score as possible has been lost in the monotonous pursuit of the ‘truth’ - this ‘truth’ being a solemn adherence to the score as sole source of musicality, and not allowing personal choice to dictate musical decisions.

Blind adherence to the ‘truth’ is simply a get out of jail card for those without the boldness, skill, or irreverence to take a set of notes put down on paper two hundred years ago, and tell their own story through them. And this is a dangerous scenario for students and competitors who are looking at success as the logical result of high percentage marks and non-controversial performances. We live in an age now where, too often, classical performers belong closer to the domain of the academic than to that of the artist. As the great Barenboim says in Everything is Connected:

            ‘Making music inevitably requires a point of view: not a wilful, purely subjective point of view, but one based on total respect for the information received from the printed page… simply playing piano only because it says so on the printed page may be a sign of modesty, but it is also an instance of sinning by omission.’

Let it be noted that this author is by no means an advocate for the bastardisation of the music: the music must remain the sole focus and winner of any decision played out. But the simple fact that we are returning to the lowest common denominator (that is, ignoring our skills and instincts in favour of obedience to a dogmatic set of rules that logically are largely irrelevant; see above) in order to avoid offence means this goal remains frequently unrealised. We must learn the rules, absorb them, embrace them: and then use/bend/break them to create our own voice.

Yes, following the path of more resistance means a lot of other musicians will write you off. Yes, this means the academics in our system will scoff. Yes, this means the majority of music listeners brought up on seminal recordings and forty years of uninspiring releases will condemn you. But maybe, just maybe, you will find something incredible that will rediscover the actual soul of Beethoven’s music: impetuous, innovative, brash, playing super loud because he couldn’t actually hear anything, rule-breaking, extreme. And there is no one way to play Beethoven. Listen to Fazil Say and Maria Joan Pires play the same works and bask in the glory that is true musicianship and the unique voice of the performers on stage, and tell me that even a irritable, arrogant, more-than-a-man genius that was Beethoven, wouldn’t have been happy listening to the multiple ways his music could have been interpreted and performed.

That’s if he wasn't too busy running around trying to hook up with his attractive female students or throwing dishes at waiters.