He counts 60 coffee beans
For the perfect cup.
Sipping, he looks out.
The city hums, church bells ring,
But he can’t hear them.
Writing, scratching out,
Writing again, he pours out
His soul in music.
We listen now and
Wonder, how can this be so?
How did he do this?
Transcending all time,
Through him we feel we almost
Beethoven. Pianist Artur Schnabel said, “Mozart is a garden; Schubert is a forest — in sunlight and shadow; Beethoven is a mountain range.”
A mountain range. Imposing, a little scary to amateur climbers. Yet perhaps irresistible. Everest beckons; better find a Sherpa. Fortunately, there is abundant help available, and I include a list of links to some resources below. In this post I focus on the piano works; covering all of his compositions in one post would be impossible.
After listening to Levit’s interpretation, I needed to listen to other recordings to hear how other pianists scaled those heights, and stared down those precipices. These are just the last five of the 32 piano sonatas. And yet they are overwhelming. I’m sure string players feel the same way about the late quartets.
There is something so intimate, so personal, in these works. You might feel like you had walked in on a private conversation. Yet Beethoven draws you into the introspection.
Here is an example, an excerpt from sonata 28 (Op. 101).
Brahms and other composers who followed Beethoven might have felt as though they were peering up at that formidable mountain. They stood in the shadow of a giant, and had to find their own way to approach his legacy, the expectations placed upon music in the AB era—After Beethoven. They had to find their own way to reach the summit.
Here are some Beethoven links
Foothills (for musicians and non-musicians alike)
A steeper climb (musical knowledge helpful)
Spotify fan? How about all of Beethoven’s works on a playlist in chronological order? (Bach and Mozart too!)
Beethoven On Demand via the Naxos Music Library, provided free by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra [sorry, no longer available].
Jan Swafford’s recent biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (here’s a review in the NY Times by pianist Jeremy Denk)
Charles Rosen’s books, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas; Sonata Forms. These are intended for more advanced musicians.
Image attribution: Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_.jpg