Learning, practicing, and playing Beethoven frustrates me to no end and often makes me depart from the piano in disgust. This happened to me today, not even ten minutes ago, but why? Is it because I simply don’t like Beethoven? I’ll admit he’s not my favorite, but I’m certainly not arrogant enough to consider him a bad composer. In fact, I’m listening to the Pathetique Sonata right now and quite happy about it.
Perhaps I’m frustrated with the quality of my own performance. Maybe it’s because I can never voice those runs of thirds in the right hand exactly how I want them. That’s certainly irritating, but I have similar frustrations with other pieces and I’m always eager to put the hours in to iron out sloppy passages and work on subtle details.
Well, usually, anyways. Sometimes I’d rather just eat a sandwich.
Besides, I record music that is still in progress and listen to it all the time, including Beethoven. Although I certainly hear the flaws, I can look past them and enjoy myself all the same. Right now, my piano’s out of tune, my recording equipment is sub-par, the keys are sticking, and the pedals are squeaking, but despite these mechanical problems and the handful of mistakes caused by my sloppy fingerwork, if I played honestly and from the heart, I only hear music when I play it back. That’s what really counts in my book.
No, what makes me storm out of the room has nothing to do with the music, my performance, the long hours of meticulous practicing, or the squeaky pedal. In fact, the end result of fixing all of these problems is what makes being a musician so satisfying, and it’s why I ultimately can’t pull myself away from my instrument.
What makes me leave the room is because playing Beethoven is absolutely and completely pointless.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Simon, music is necessary for the soul, and Beethoven wrote some of the greatest music ever written! What right do you have to make a statement like that?” Well, I’m still listening to Beethoven piano sonatas, so I certainly can’t disagree. In fact, I was overjoyed when I had the opportunity to claim the complete Richter recordings as my own.
But this is exactly where my frustration begins.
There used to be a time when every performance mattered, and your favorite music wasn’t on a record, CD, iPod, or YouTube video. At this very moment, there are thousands of other musicians working on the same repertoire and devoting every waking hour of their life to recreate something that anybody can download for one dollar from the iTunes store. Should we spend our entire lives repainting the Mona Lisa, or rebuilding the Pyramids? That’s just stupid, yet there are musical institutions all over the world that are doing just that, long after recorded media has made them all but obsolete.
I have nothing against higher learning or musicians who want to play classical music – it’s my entire career, after all. Unfortunately, it’s extremely rare to make any money from performance nowadays, and we all need to pay the bills from time to time. So, unless you go into teaching, that music degree with those countless hours of practicing won’t find you a job. In the end, we learn Bach to teach the next generation to teach Bach to the next generation and so on.
But my rant isn’t about the financial well-being of classical musicians – it’s about the redundancy of the repertoire. There is so much great classical literature out there that one could spend their entire lifetime learning it all. However, where can we find our audience for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. if they have already been recorded perfectly? Why spend so much time and effort to learn a Beethoven sonata using correct, historically-accurate performance practices when one can simply find it on Amazon.com? Why should a café hire a live musician instead of putting on a CD for nearly no cost at all?
If the music of old is already vouched for, we’ll need to look at some newer, fresher pieces, but where do we find them? This is our next hurdle, and it’s a tricky one. There are certainly plenty of great, talented composers today, but contemporary classical music (as if that term made any sense) has a bad reputation. Whether or not we enjoy the stuff, the audience is very selective. We can choose to blame radio DJs, concert programming, or uneducated ears. It can also be argued that the music must sound new and avant-garde because there is no purpose is saying what old composers have already said. However, I’d like to pose this question:
What if a new, unpublished Beethoven symphony had been discovered?
Wouldn’t we all want to hear it immediately? Wouldn’t it be programmed absolutely everywhere, worldwide? Wouldn’t there be a mad dash to record it first? Wouldn’t it be appreciated for more than just its historical significance? Wouldn’t it be analyzed and dissected to pieces in order to create the best, most precise, most heartfelt performance possible?
Let me pose another question: What if, one year later, the symphony turned out to be a gigantic hoax and was, in fact, written by your neighbor, Bob Johnson, in between games of Tetris while he was bored at the office?
Well, first of all, it turns out that Bob is a genius, but more importantly, had the name Beethoven not been attached to the work, would it ever be programmed at all? Would anyone have even encouraged Bob to finish it? Would Bob have been actively discouraged from writing something so “classical”? Would a work written on June 17th, 2011 have been taken seriously?
Finally, the most important question: If we had heard Bob Johnson’s symphony on the radio, not knowing the composer or its date of composition, and we liked it, do any of those questions even matter?
The fact that there are audiences listening and students dedicating their entire lives to learning music from old composers proves that a hunger for those styles is alive and well. We can’t deny that Schönberg was a talented composer, and I have no intention of insulting the man, yet sixty years after his death he’s still far from mainstream. In fact, if you’re not a musician, you probably haven’t heard of him at all. The problem with “new” classical music is not that it’s badly written, poorly performed, or that audiences are uneducated, but rather that it’s too obsessed with being new. Any piece of music heard by anyone who is not yet familiar with it will be new to them, regardless of its date of publication. A contemporary composer’s music is competing directly with Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Debussy – as contemporaries.
My frustrations really don’t lie with Beethoven or have anything to do with the music he wrote. They are with the current state of the classical music world, its establishment, and the mindset regarding new music. There will always be a place for great orchestras to play great art from the past, and pianists should certainly keep learning to play Beethoven for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. However, if any of us want to have a career, we’ll need to find some new music that inspires us in the same way that our favorite composers have, or start composing ourselves. There are reasons why young students dedicate their entire lives to learning Chopin. Maybe we should write some more.
I’m going to go eat a sandwich.
Simon Bielman, 2012