Friday, April 19, 2019

Beethoven and Us

I asked students in my class to share some of their stories related to Beethoven. After focusing on Beethoven's music for four and a half weeks, I wanted to provide a window for our personal encounters with the music and the man, whether positive or negative. Here are a few snippets:

"When my sister and I were about 8 and 10, we started taking piano lessons.  Our parents, who had had no musical education themselves, were determined that their children would get the musical education they hadn’t had themselves.  In fact, my mother decided to take piano lessons as well.  I remember one year, night after night, trying to go to sleep as Mom practiced “Fur Elise” downstairs - painstakingly going over passages again and again and again.  By the end of that year, I swore I’d never listen to that blasted piece again."

So, no "Fur Elise" in class. Got it. Actually there were a few of you who wrote that they couldn't stand that piece anymore. 

But not everybody.

"My parents before me enjoyed Beethoven's music and I must have heard it growing up. I started piano lessons at the age of 8, and was playing Für Elise when I was about 12. I thought I played it reasonably well and was quite pleased I could play it without notes for my recital. That was a very positive first encounter with, and owning of, a Beethoven piece."

See, some folks have a nice time with that piece. 

I expected a few Beethoven encounters to be rocky, however. Here is a very well written insight into just one such difficulty. The subject line was "Beethoven without Fear."

"Around the mid-1970s, grocery stores would sometimes offer merchandise specials to woo customers.  Usually it was cookware, like a nonstick skillet, or necessities like dish towels, but sometimes the specials veered away from the kitchen, like Volume 1 of an encyclopedia at a low introductory price.  And on one occasion, it was records – the 33 1/3 LPs that were the still the leading technology of the time (just before cassette tapes). And the very first one offered for sale was Beethoven's 6th Symphony, for something like $1.99.

Although I was very budget-minded young mother at the time, this went into the shopping cart, but not without some trepidation. Beethoven scared me.  I had been a fan of Bach (the first classical album I ever bought) and Mozart (I played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for our kids at night, as my mother had done for me). But Beethoven always seemed intimidating. He was a giant, yet to me he seemed too loud, too long and overwrought. What little I did know— his greatest hits (the 5th, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata) –  were so overplayed as to seem either overbearing or tedious.

I knew I had to be missing something. So I bought the album, took it home and played it, and it was lovely. The kids calmed down and even my husband -- strictly a jazz devotee -- enjoyed it. I played it again, and again, and again. We still love it."

I'll come back to that letter later. In the meantime, here is a story of consistent effort:

"So when I was around 15 years old, a good friend and me decided we wanted to learn all the Beethoven symphonies. We didn’t have a classical radio station in the city, and my home only had Chopin Waltzes, Swan Lake, and Bolero, all chosen by my mother when we joined the Columbia record club. I had a boxy record player. There was a place in downtown Montreal called The Record Store, and every week we would take the bus down there to rent a symphony. We started with the first symphony and in 9 weeks had heard them all!  It cost $1.00 a record to rent."

I remember hours spent in music libraries listening to things I wanted to be able to hear all of. In college I actually worked my way through the Haydn symphonies. All 104. It took a couple of years, though.

I wanted to talk about our personal encounters with the music because some time during my preparation of some of the piano sonatas (by the way, I played at least one movement from 8 of the 32 sonatas during the course of the class) I realized that I could remember when and where I had first learned many of them, and sometimes even had fond memories of my initial exposure to the music. 

In high school I purchased a CD which contained Vladimir Ashkenazy's interpretations of three Beethoven Sonatas: The Moonlight, Appassionata, and Pathetique. I played all of them in class (but only the first movement of the Appassionata). I remember wishing to play the Appassionata, but not having the music. I grew up in a small town without a classical music store, and I had no idea where to get a copy of the sonatas. So I went about it another way: I listened to the piece again and again, and learned to play the entire sonata by ear. Some time later, at a summer music camp on a university campus, I stopped in at their library to see the actual score. The page was thick with notes. I remember thinking, man, this piece is hard! Good thing I didn't know that at the time!

This was a story I did not share in class because we were pressed for time. I'm glad so many of you shared your stories. I still have a few more things to say about Beethoven, so although the class is over, I'll keep blogging about him for another week. Stay tuned, and thanks!
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