Should we stop playing Beethoven?

January 28, 2012 by: Simon

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 cafĂ© 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

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Comments

5 Responses to “Should we stop playing Beethoven?”
  1. Kimi says:

    Excellent to have this aidtidon to the lewes artistic scene. I shall definitely make use of it so thanks. Good luck.

  2. Hi Simon,

    I appreciate your questions and have a few responses I hope will help. I caught this post from what you posted at Greg Sandow’s blog, btw.

    I believe you are pointing at the paradox of classical music we all have to reconcile. The one-sidedness of Western thought is that we must believe something very firmly in order to do what we do (“rid the world of evil”). Eastern philosophy (and Carl Jung) allow that opposites are always present and we can embrace them without spontaneously bursting into flames.

    As such the performance of classical music is both relevant and irrelevant at the same time. It all depends on which side of the coin we’re currently staring at. When I look thru the eyes of my friends who wouldn’t consider coming to a symphony concert, I understand their disconnect. When I’m playing in my orchestra I can’t understand how they could resist. The paradox begins to reconcile my dilemma. Both are absolutely real because we live in the world of our own perceptions as freedom-obsessed American individuals.

    Most of us musicians will bury our heads in isolation with sympathetic individuals. My way out of the frustration has been to work to recognize and acknowledge each side of the coin to the other. I started a chapter of Classical Revolution (.org) in Detroit (of all places) to play in bars, coffeehouses and clubs. Here I find curious music fans respond positively when they have a personal connection to me and I can demystify the traditions and briefly reset the context for them. An example is to play a famous piece of Mozart, then talk about how I tried to write a work of similar beauty and timelessness, then play my music. This endeavor gives me AS MUCH satisfaction as playing in the DSO like I have for 22 years.

    So I suggest you seek a new audience outside and approach them with your dilemma and passion. Find ways to explain it simply and honestly. Perhaps start by acknowledging non-accusingly why people don’t enjoy classical. Show them boths sides of the coin! Good luck!

  3. Miles V. says:

    This is a very good point here about Bob the genius neighbor. In a way you might even say it’s not only pointless, but destructive to keep performing Beethoven because it squanders yet another opportunity for something new to be heard.

    The ugly truth here might be that Beethoven isn’t so much a composer in our eyes, but a brand. And when you play Beethoven-brand classical music, you know your ears are receiving quality sound that has been certified as awesome for hundreds of years. And ever since Art became spelled with a capital A, that’s what people really want, or at least think they want.

    I have to think maybe that as it gets harder and more expensive to put together an orchestra, everyone involved wants to get their money’s worth, audience, musicians, theater, production staff, etc. and performing Genius Bob’s symphony is simply too great a risk for them to take. What if nobody comes? What if it sucks? It’s pretty tragic that it comes down to financial considerations and not artistic ones.

  4. Simon says:

    Not only is Beethoven a brand, his music is basically The Bible; and one doesn’t change the bible. Yet, at one point, it was all freshly written, and we can plainly see that Beethoven would cross out his own less-than-stellar ideas. In the end, it’s all just music, whether it’s jazz, classical, rock, k-pop, raggae, hip-hop, dubstep, country, whatever.

    My experiences are proof enough that you don’t need a professor to learn a fondness for “Art”. The Chopin “Raindrop” prelude became popular in the last few years as “That Halo Commercial Song”. Even if that makes you cringe, it proves that the music itself is still relevant today. But we don’t need to re-record it any more than we need to re-record Sgt. Pepper’s. But if a newer generation of musicians should pick up the spirit of my favorite composers, I’ll be sitting in the front row.

    Unless I’m eating a sandwich.

    (I like sandwiches.)

    (…and no, I’m not fat.)

  5. Sarah says:

    Interesting (and probably not coincidental) that you chose Beethoven as your object of consternation. The transition in musical thought that occurred during Beethoven’s life is what set this whole glorious problem up: music became Art, and Art must be elevated, set apart from daily life, and ultimately ossified into a museum piece.

    Before the romantic period, music from the past was never played. It would be as quaint as earnestly playing disco in a dubstep club. Mendelssohn’s performance of Bach long after the latter’s death, because clearly his music was Art and not a mere craft, marked the beginning of this trend, and the end. Granted, his audience had probably never heard Bach before, and so the music was very new to them. But, modern recording technology pretty much ensures that very little music of the past will be new to us.

    I believe that labeling a form as Art consigns it to this weird state, where practitioners are very conscious of what they’re doing and how it fits into History and Aesthetics. I’ve never really been able to articulate it properly, but, it is my theory that when the people involved with a craft declare it Art, the effect is similar a creature gaining consciousness. Suddenly, Art becomes concerned with its past and its future. Would anyone during Wagner’s time have been so terribly alarmed with his changes to how proper Art music “should” be if music was not Art, with all of that word’s implications and baggage? Would Schoenberg have fretted so much over his place in music history if those before him had not been so meticulous in laying out the history of their Art? Like a conscious being, Art worries over its own death, and works to preserve itself even if it means stagnation.

    I find your point about new music’s need to be innovative incredibly resonant. It’s hard to take the new music going on at your school seriously when it involves a few dudes sitting on the floor pushing bowls around and hitting things and then daring you to tell them it isn’t wonderful Art music. I understand the value of having the “what is art?” conversation, but at this point, it’s been done to death. I’d rather just listen to something fresh and new, and enjoy the experience.

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