Beethoven’s need to be heard

Pianist Jonathan Biss is preparing to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, by performing all 32 of his piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall. He writes for IAM on this spectacular series.

“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing… Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, as it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.”

Beethoven wrote these words to his brothers in October 1802. His deafness had become severe, making composition hugely difficult, and largely isolating him from the world, given his intense pride and susceptibility to feelings of shame.

When we think of Beethoven in the context of his deafness, we tend to think of him at the end of his life: defying all probability and mortality itself, and writing otherworldly, years-if-not-centuries-if-not-an-infinity-before-their-time masterpieces like the last piano sonatas and string quartets, or the Missa Solemnis. But in fact, Beethoven was just 32 when he wrote that letter.

However great his sense of despair and isolation, he lived 25 more years. He was not yet writing music that turned inward, either in spiritual pursuit or in self-defense: he was writing the second symphony, an expression of full-throttled joy and optimism, and the Op. 31 piano sonatas, works that move the genre in remarkable directions, in which his determination to share – show off, even – his passion and vision is palpable in every note. To paraphrase Beethoven’s letter: he had a staggering amount to say, and a staggering need to say it.

The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth is approaching, and the classical music world is preparing to celebrate. His music, never neglected, will be played more than usual. Complete cycles of his piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies will be performed in all corners of the world. New works have been commissioned to be played in dialogue with his. Lectures on his music will be given. Much ink will be spilled on his significance and meaning.

I am keenly aware of all of this, in part because I am doing so much of it. A huge proportion of the last decade of my life has revolved around Beethoven’s music – the piano sonatas in particular – and the coming year will be devoted to it almost exclusively. And therefore, I have become very used to the slightly enervated tone of voice people adopt when they ask: “Is this really necessary?” Does Beethoven, perhaps the one composer who has become iconic not just within the classical music world, but at large, really need this sort of advocacy?

I could answer that I believe the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas to be the greatest body of music ever written (the 16 string quartets are no less staggering, but in spite of having only attended music conservatories, I can say with some confidence that 32 is greater than 16), and that is all the motivation I need to play them. I could also answer that working on them collectively and all at once forces me to dig deeper into them, and will without a doubt lead me to a greater understanding of Beethoven’s style, his language, his concerns.

These answers would be entirely true. But they would miss the heart of the matter. I am playing Beethoven’s piano sonatas for the same reason that Beethoven wrote them: I need to play them. This goes beyond the quality and variety and even the spirituality of this music (remarkable and unique as they are) and to the question of Beethoven’s personality.

He needed to write; he needed to be heard. That need, as he so memorably explained to his brothers, kept him alive, and it is audible in just about every phrase of every work he published.

Beethoven is a personality of such force, of such intensity, that listening to him ceases to be a matter of choice. You can tell me that you feel a deeper affinity for the music of Mozart, or Schubert, or Bartók, and I will not argue with you. But none of them have the same ferocity of intention; that force of will that plowed through deafness and alcoholism and misanthropy to create music that is, to a remarkable extent, in a language all its own. Music that simultaneously addresses the cosmos and the innermost soul. Music that is as much about blood and guts as it is about idealism and beauty.

Beethoven is not just a great artist: he is a gift to humanity. Sharing that gift as widely and in as many ways as possible has been among the most meaningful things in my life.

Jonathan Biss performs this Sunday 29 September 2019 7.30pm, followed by a conversation with the audience at 9.30pm, Wigmore Hall, London. Further concerts take place in December, January and February.

From this weekend, in the lead-up to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Jonathan Biss will perform all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall in London. Each of his seven Wigmore Hall concerts will be preceded by a Coursera meet-up and followed by post-concert talks with speakers including Brett Dean, Sally Beamish, Belcea Quartet, Jan Swafford and Mitsuko Uchida. Jonathan announced his intention for Beethoven’s piano music to become a central pillar in his life when, in 2011, he released Beethoven’s Shadow as a Kindle single. Since then, Jonathan has recorded the entire Beethoven Sonata cycle, with the final CD being released in November 2019; initiated Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in collaboration with Coursera; and launched Beethoven/5, a project involving the commissioning of five piano concertos as companion works for each of Beethoven’s piano concertos.