Pianist Artur Schnabel compared Beethoven’s work to a mountain range: vast, imposing, with infinite pathways to explore.
So where do you start with Beethoven? Here’s my suggestion.
Coursera.org has a free, go-at-your-own-pace, on-demand set of lectures, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The series is sponsored by the Curtis Institute of Music and hosted by renowned pianist Jonathan Biss. Before he even gets to Beethoven, Biss gives an overview of the state of music in Bach’s time and in the time of Haydn and Mozart, so you have a background to understanding the environment in which Beethoven wrote. He then explains the sonata form. Even if you have little to no musical background, you should be fairly comfortable with the material, which is presented in a lively and interesting manner.
The lectures then move into the various periods of Beethoven’s sonata writing, with ample and engaging illustrative samplings of the works. The course includes notes and lists of resources, and one can stream sonatas discussed in the course, performed by Jonathan Biss.
I took this course and learned a great deal about the sonatas and Beethoven (as well as Bach, Haydn, and Mozart). I gained a deeper understanding of the music, and could enjoy and appreciate it more as a result of taking the course.
Biss is currently in the middle of a nine-year project to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Some are already available. He has also published Amazon “singles” (short books) on Beethoven and Schumann, which I have read and enjoyed (see the recordings and books here).
I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Biss after a performance some time ago. After I introduced myself as one of his “Courserians,” he began to talk enthusiastically about the course, and told me that he planned to augment the course with lectures devoted to individual sonatas (he has). It was clear he was happy to bring Beethoven to a wider audience, which was already evident in his lectures. That wider audience is now in excess of 100,000 students from 160 countries!
So go to Coursera, sign up for a free account, and start exploring Beethoven’s sonatas. While you’re there, you’ll also find an on-demand course on the string quartet (also brought to you by the Curtis Institute of Music) and a variety of other courses on music and many other subjects. A course on the rudiments of music will start up 3 August 2015. And keep an eye out for Write Like Mozart, a fantastic course on composition (sadly, not currently available).
Which is your favorite Beethoven sonata? If you don’t have one yet, that’s ok—you will soon!