Beethoven at the Piano

This show originally aired December 2014.

We’re getting the Beethoven fundamentals, as never before, at my own piano. At a short safe distance from the keyboard, I’m learning, among other things:

As volcanic was the man’s painful life and descent into deafness, so his musical production was miraculously steady, virtually flawless, endlessly various in form and surface, scale, sonority and feelings — furious, lyrical, melting, often humorous, on the way to a “God sound” in the unearthly late work. Improvisation and variations at the piano were the twin engines of his imagination, on an instrument whose sound he kept reinventing. Those sonatas, variations and bagatelles for piano alone, most of them conceived as private statements, unperformed in public in Beethoven’s time, were the springboard of the giant symphonic spectacles with orchestra. And those same piano pieces can be taken today – fresh thrills and chills on every hearing – as Beethoven’s short stories. Much as Henry James’s stories record the self-study of a great novelist, Beethoven’s piano pieces give us a journal of his inner life, a view into his laboratory and maybe his soul.

The occasion is Jan Swafford’s acclaimed 1000-page biography: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, the biggest Beethoven book in a century. The opportunity is to engage around my piano with Andrew Rangell, who made his bones—as the great pianists all seem to do—by performing all 32 of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Years later, Andrew Rangell is still recording the late Beethoven masterpieces.

Jan Swafford, left, and Andrew Rangell.

Jan Swafford, left, and Andrew Rangell.

Throughout these piano works, we hear Beethoven the master of forms: sonata, fugue, and perhaps variations as his signature. The notion was to take a motif and re-imagine it, transfigure it, over and over. One thing is continually becoming many.

That big, shape-shifting idea in Beethoven’s own life comes from the German Enlightenment. It’s all in the Ode to Joy, Friedrich Schiller’s hugely popular poem from 1785, set to many tunes before Beethoven’s. The Ode declared the universal brotherhood of mankind through a sublime experience of art and the natural world. This becomes a north star motivating Beethoven through what we call his early, middle, and late periods. Irony, perhaps, that Beethoven himself became a kind of divine figure, worshipped long after his death in the great temples of music. In Boston Symphony Hall built in 1900, Beethoven is the one composer’s name in block letters on the giant medallion in the arch over the stage. He shaped the size and sonority of pianos and symphonies, the carrying capacity of LPs and CDs, also our expectations as listeners, for fire and depth and heroic fury in overwhelming music.

This hour, some of the rest of the story: the joy, the darkness, and the depth of Beethoven’s piano world. Three personal points are not incidental to this conversation: Jan Swafford was a composer before he was a biographer. He wrote the big life stories of Johannes Brahms and the American modernist Charles Ives before his Beethoven. And he’s still a composer. Andrew is an uncommonly reflective player, a reader, a writer, cartoonist as well. And finally, these guys are good friends. They have been hashing out their different takes on Beethoven over pizza and Patriots games for more than 20 years, and now blessedly for our mikes. Thank you, Jan and Andrew.

Music From the Program

Guest List
Jan Swafford
Composer and writer Jan Swafford wrote a definitive biography (1996) of the American modernist Charles Ives (1874 - 1954) and the last big biography (1997) of the German master Johannes Brahms (1833 -1897). This year he published the personal, provocative, almost conversational epic Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.
Andrew Rangell
Andrew Rangel is a pianist in the Glenn Gould class -- meaning a master of the instrument and the repertoire who can play, think and talk at the same time. His recordings of the keyboard masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms are available on line, as well as many recordings of ancients and moderns from Sweelinck to Janacek. His new release is of Late Beethoven at the piano.

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  • Linda Merrill

    Wonderful program, thoroughly. Thank you. I realize now why the Moonlight Sonata has never worn very well for me over the years (when quite young I even played the 1st part in a recital); it seemed overly familiar, I did not like radio stations playing the piece in the morning, and basically I tolerated it.

    NOW I KNOW I have never heard this sonata played the way God intended it to be played, for my ear, anyway, until a few minutes ago when I listened to Andrew Rangell play the Moonlight with soulful, emotional timing. Here it sounds beautiful and I love it!!

    • Conor

      Thank you for listening!

  • CambridgeStephen

    I have read several books by Jan Swafford in the past with great pleasure, beginning with his delightful Vintage Guide to Classical Music, but never heard him speak before. This was a treat.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    BEETHOVEN KANT SCHILLER

    The ROS discussion and demonstration of the music of Beethoven was another ROS gem and mentioned in passing links with Kant and Schiller.

    Someone who would like to read an exploration of these very links might look at Theodor Adorno’s musical studies of Beethoven, such as “Quasi Una Fantasia” (title borrowed of course
    from Beethoven works).
    Adorno (1903-1969) writes:

    “Beethoven, in fact meets Kant through Schiller; more particularly under the sign of a formal ethical idealism.”
    Adorno then shows in detail how Beethoven is somewhat entwined with these influences, Kant and Schiller as mentioned in passing on the ROS show.

    Adorno who was the music theorist and sociologist of the Frankfurt
    School (Marcuse, Erich Fromm, et al) wrote several music studies including a philosophy of Beethoven’s music. He combines Teutonic murkiness with flashes of great lucidity and acumen
    so you have to put yourself in the mood for twisty “Teutono-smarts.” He is
    worth the effort, in the end.

    Two strictures on the connecting of music with philosophy:
    1. Karl Barth, the great thinker-theologian says in his short book on Mozart (foreword by John
    Updike in the English translation):

    “There is no Mozartean metaphysics.” (this stricture about Mozart might well apply to Beethoven)

    (Karl Barth, “Mozart” paperback, John Updike forward))

    2. Schleiermacher, the earlier culture-watcher, says somewhere that cultural and musical styles
    can’t be reduced to concepts.
    Armed with these two caveats, a perusal of Adorno on Beethoven will be rewarding if you also keep in mind that Adorno seems to have displayed a “maximum feasible misunderstanding” of
    jazz which point then overlaps with the Pico Iyer ROS discussion slated for January 1, 2015.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    JOHN UPDIKE ON BEETHOVEN

    In his forward to the famous religious-ophilosophical thinker, Karl Barth’s masterful little book, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” John Updike (recall the ROS show on him) writes:

    ” The order is, in Mozart, deeply assimilated and not a kind of exoskeleton, a message, as in Bach.
    Nor is Mozart engaged in personal confession, like Beethoven.”

    “Mozart”, Karl Barth, 1986, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, paperback, page 11

    Richard Melson

  • RON O

    Spellbinding. We need many, many more programs just like this one. ROS is the only site I can find that can get away with doing them. Lots of composers, and Boston has no lack of resources to keep this up.

  • Carl

    Thank you gentlemen…another exquisite and deeply moving program.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    BEETHOVEN’S “MISSA
    SOLEMNIS”: GABRIEL MARCEL COMMENT

    Gabriel
    Marcel was a leading Christian existentialist philosopher-playwright who taught
    at Harvard in the 1950s’.

    In his “Philosophical
    Fragments 1900-1914,” he writes:

    “…I once
    again heard that sublime quartet, Op. 135 by Beethoven. I became aware that I
    had to remember, with all the gratitude with which he inspired me, the
    incomparable genius whose work offers to us the burning testimony of a soul which,
    having gone through the most desperate battles, found peace beyond the most

    BEETHOVEN’S “MISSA
    SOLEMNIS”: GABRIEL MARCEL COMMENT

    Gabriel
    Marcel was a leading Christian existentialist philosopher-playwright who taught
    at Harvard in the 1950s’.

    In his “Philosophical
    Fragments 1900-1914,” he writes:

    “…I once
    again heard that sublime quartet, Op. 135 by Beethoven. I became aware that I
    had to remember, with all the gratitude with which he inspired me, the
    incomparable genius whose work offers to us the burning testimony of a soul which,
    having gone through the most desperate battles, found peace beyond the most
    insoluble tensions. This is the peace of a finite brotherly world.”

    insoluble tensions. This is the peace of a finite brotherly world.”

    BEETHOVEN’S “MISSA SOLEMNIS”: GABRIEL MARCEL COMMENT

    Gabriel Marcel was a leading Christian existentialist philosopher-playwright who taught
    at Harvard in the 1950s’.

    In his “Philosophical Fragments 1900-1914,” he writes:

    “…I once again heard that sublime quartet, Op. 135 by Beethoven. I became aware that I
    had to remember, with all the gratitude with which he inspired me, the incomparable genius

    whose work offers to us the burning testimony of a soul which,
    having gone through the most desperate battles, found peace beyond the most insoluble tensions.

    This is the peace of a finite brotherly world.”

    (Gabriel Marcel paperback, 1965, University of Notre Dame, side essay by Marcel,

    “The Philosopher and Peace.”)

    “I know I shall never be able to express exactly and emphatically enough what these last
    works of Beethoven have meant to me. His “Missa Solemnis” is, for me, the
    masterpiece of masterpieces. Each time I hear it I feel as though it creates a
    vacuum around me. Of course this is only a delusion…”

    (Marcel book, ibid, page 18)

    Lastly: Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) of the “Frankfurt School” has a long essay called “Missa
    Solemnis” in his “Essays on Music” which might be thought of as an intricate
    companion to the Gabriel Marcel comments.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    I had to stop and put my CD of Daniel Barenboim playing these piano sonatas before I could listen to the rest of this enlightening and enthusiastic discussion. Such was the emotion I felt from hearing the “Moonlight Sonata” in particular. It brought me to tears. It was also taking me back in time when I had this piece in my hands. ( Was I in high school?) The Sonata Pathetique, after that, I managed to accomplish the first movement. Very difficult. By that time I was ready for college and had to choose where to put my concentration and energy. So now it’s gone from my hands. I might try it though as I would not be without a piano (tuned!) to this day. What the heck. But there is nothing like learning to play the piano, working at it, to get this music imprinted forever into one’s soul (so to speak), to learn it. All children should have access to music lessons even if they don’t make it a career or perform. We’d all be better for it.

    The variations I was not aware of. They’re delightful. I love Chris’s connection of this light-heartedness to Gershwin and the American Songbook.

    Also I was wondering if Beethoven,in his despondency about going deaf, but also showing his spirit, fighting it to continue his art, to live, found that he could actually hear in another way as Evelyn Glennie did:

    https://www.evelyn.co.uk/hearing-essay/. She has been an enduring inspiration.

    I have been wanting to listen to this show since you produced it two years ago but kept putting it off, so finally…
    Your piano sounds marvelous, as too the playing and the commentary. This is a welcome relief from the current state of affairs, dare I say. Blessing of the season and Happy New Year to you all.. may it be a surprisingly good year.

  • Billy McBride

    I am not going to be like the narrator of Leo Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, and accuse Beethoven and his music for bewitching anybody to commit adultery because of the passionate melodies, and I do relate to Ralph Waldo Ellison’s narrator of his novel, Invisible Man when the narrator proclaims that the “Fifth Symphony racked me,” while he was lying on a hospital bed after surviving an explosion in a white paint factory, but I will say that personally I have had to fall away from connecting with Beethoven’s music in order to understand my very own voice (for the synthesizer). This was not easy. I grew up on the sweetness of Mozart and Haydn and the sweetness/bitterness of Beethoven, and I used to believe that the musical drama of Beethoven was exactly how I felt in my own life, but not anymore, or rather I think that there are even more rich emotions outside of those expressed in the music that are just as awesome or even more awesome than the kind invented by the composer. My favorite piece is his Ode to Joy, the ninth symphony and last of his.