A few days ago I went to a wonderful concert with the legendary pianist Martha Argerich performing Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert was actually sold out but we managed to get tickets for seats behind the orchestra, which provided an unusual angle to follow the concert from. I could see Argerich turn away from the piano and watch the orchestra and conductor while she had a few bars rest, like a surfer watching a wave approach before riding it.
As I listened to her clear and precise playing and beautifully shaped phrases I thought about Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020.
Even people who have no connection to classical music will recognize some of his music. The main theme of Fur Elise, the end of the 9th symphony (Ode to joy) and the beginning of the 5th symphony are among the classical greatest hits of all times. What is it that makes Beethoven’s music part of so many classical concerts? Why is he still so popular?
Historically, Beethoven was an important bridge between the classical era, represented by Haydn and Mozart, and the romantic era. He took lessons with Haydn but moved on to create his own individual style, breaking, bending and stretching the rules.
Beethoven’s life wasn’t easy. He had a traumatic childhood and had to provide for himself from an early age. He became a fantastic pianist and composer when he realized that he was losing his main tool and that the worst imaginable (musician’s) nightmare was happening to him- he was growing deaf.
So Beethoven had to accept the gradual loss of his main tool. Or so he thought. But his main tool turned out to be his mind, that could overcome his loss of hearing. Beethoven turned to his inner ear, he could imagine the sound in his mind and then put it to paper, for others to read and play. When Beethoven could no longer hear his compositions with his ears, he experienced the tremendous music with his imagination.
To do this, one has to have an extraordinary character, one has to be full of determination, hope and drive and I think this is what has made his music so immortal. Beethoven’s music confronts the difficulties in life and stands up to them. It is music that builds, inspires and kindles.
On the other hand, Beethoven’s music can be extremely delicate and sublime. When Martha Arerich played the 2nd movement of the concerto you could hear a pin drop in the full hall. Argerich played ever so softly and Beethoven’s music shone through like a whisper from beyond. Argeich and Beethoven took the audience on a journey to the innermost shrine and this too is what makes Beethoven speak to us even after so many years.
Luckily, Beethoven wrote piano music for his students from beginner level onwards, so you can start playing his music from an early stage. Although the main theme of Fur Elise is not all that difficult, I suggest students wait until they can play the whole piece that blends other magnificent parts into the reoccurring theme instead of just ticking off the first page
Later on you can play through the 32 sonatas and travel with Beethoven through the different stages of his life, from the young and fiery to the old and wise, always with the inner strength and extremely delicate side by side.
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