A Month of Beethoven

By James David Jacobs

In the midst of traditional holiday celebrations, join us for a celebration of the composer who changed everything.

Which holiday event do you look forward to most at this time of year? Musically, there’s no richer time of year, with perennials like Messiah and The Nutcracker, and the chance to hear sublime beauty from groups like Blue Heron and the Tallis Scholars.

But there’s another celebration in December: a secular, music-filled party on the 16th for the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. And for 2012 CNE will expand the celebration to the entire month of December as we explore Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas – a body of work that has been called “Beethoven’s autobiography.”


Special braodcasts for Beethoven's Birthday:

A Beethoven birthday celebration on Drive Time Live

Boston Symphony Orchestra encore concerts include the Missa Solemnis, and the Opening Night of Tanglewood,with the Leonore Overture No. 3, and the Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6

Deborah Voigt and Peter Schreier sing Beethoven on Arias and Barcarolles
Beethoven began his musical life as a pianist, and it was through this instrument that he developed his voice and created his public persona. By all accounts he was not handsome and lacked certain social graces, yet through his piano he was confident, urbane, witty, passionate and seductive.

His piano writing, especially early in his career, has a fluency and nuance unmatched by his writing for other instruments; works like his Symphony No. 1 and his string trios, great as they are, seem somewhat crude compared to the piano sonatas he was writing at the same time. While he eventually achieved mastery in many forms of music, there’s an aspect of Beethoven’s voice that’s unique to his sonatas.

He wrote most of them for himself to play, but several of them were written for his students. It is in these sonatas that we get a glimpse of Beethoven the teacher, an aspect of his career he took very seriously. It didn’t hurt that many of his students were refined young women from prosperous families, and since teaching them was probably the most intimate he ever got with any woman of that type, it’s not a stretch to say that the sonatas also reflected the most direct realization of his romantic yearnings.

It is also the piano sonata to which he turned in his darkest moments. He wrote eight sonatas between 1800 and 1802, the years in which his encroaching deafness became palpable. They’re his most deeply felt and accomplished works of that period. Later, in the bleakest, most creatively barren decade of his life, beginning in 1813, his art, his ethics, and his mental health were seriously compromised, and his last six piano sonatas stand as beacons of light in the darkness. They’re like elaborate memos-to-self about his true nature, at a time when he was in grave danger of forgetting what that was.

While this body of sonatas pulls back the curtain on Beethoven as a composer, they are also wonderfully effective mirrors for the personality of the pianist who plays them. A survey of recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas is also a survey of the greatest pianists of the last century.

Arthur Schnabel, whose complete recording of the sonatas in 1935 set the standard for all who followed him, was undoubtedly thinking of these works when he stated that he only wanted to play music “which is better than it could be performed.” These sonatas are a bottomless well from which pianists continue to draw, a journey that, while never complete, is always worth taking.

We invite you to take the journey of Beethoven’s sonatas with us throughout December. Tune in Monday-Thursday at 9pm during December, and listen for more of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with my colleagues, Laura Carlo, Alan McLellan, Cathy Fuller, Ray Brown, and Cheryl Willoughby.

To learn more about each day's Beethoven piano sonata, join us on Facebook.

Hear Beethoven's music on-demand in these performances from our studios and around Boston:

BSO Broadcasts:
Studio Concerts:


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