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