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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In this year of Mozart's 250th birthday and Shostakovich's 100th, classical music lovers may have noticed that piano sonatas by Beethoven haven't faded from the scene one iota. All 32 of them are being performed live this summer, and several recordings of the set are in progress. Sara Fishko of member station WNYC says there's a reason these Beethoven pieces are never out of favor.

SARA FISHKO reporting:

For a musician there's some pieces of music you just pick up and get into, but pianists seem to feel they have to be ready to play any and all of the 32 Beethoven sonatas.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

FISHKO: So they may wait awhile to tackle them, but most do reach the moment, eventually, when they're forced to face these pieces that are at the very heart of the piano repertoire.

Mr. ROBERT TAUB (Pianist): In many ways, I think the Beethoven sonatas as a whole, as an entity, are the equivalent of the Mount Everest for pianists.

FISHKO: Pianist Robert Taub wrote a whole book about the Beethoven sonatas. He's still searching for the right metaphor for them.

Mr. TAUB: It would be trivial to say pianists want to play them because they're there, but they are there, and they're monolithic.

FISHKO: The Mount Everest, the Rosetta Stone, the New Testament for pianists, they've been called.

Mr. GARRICK OHLSSON (Pianist): Those are the commonly said things, yes. New Testament, yes. I mean, I think we mustn't take these things too literally.

FISHKO: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will play the whole cycle in eight concerts this summer.

Mr. OHLSSON: They represent a lifetime of preoccupation with both the form and an instrument in which you can, you know, read the full development of Beethoven pretty much as a composer.

FISHKO: That is because these sonatas were Beethoven's laboratory. The piano was his instrument.

It was in these pieces that he personally, with considerable agony, we're told, composed and performed his musical ideas, many of which later found their way into his chamber and orchestral works. So heard separately, they are incredible enough. Together, heard across the weeks it takes to play the cycle, they give us the entire story of a composer's progress. He started with them in the 1790s, still under the influence of Haydn and Mozart.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

FISHKO: He had his romantic awakening and poured it into the sonatas of the early 1800s.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

Mr. OHLSSON: By the time he's in the late music, he's writing music of such an advanced nature that it helped change the course of musical language for the next hundred years, emotionally and spiritually.

FISHKO: And technically. The Sonata No. 29, for example, the Hammerklavier Sonata. Mitsuko Uchida is preparing to record it.

Ms. MITSUKO UCHIDA (Pianist): I can't tell you. I mean, the fugue, Hammerklavier fugue is technically really not very playable on the piano.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

Mr. TAUB: It's the Hammerklavier Sonata, the sonata that makes all of us pianists quake in our boots. That's the most epic.

Mr. OHLSSON: It's in a frenzy. It's incredibly fast. It's this wild fugue jumping all over the place. The music gets so furious and so wild and so extreme and is pushing the boundaries everywhere that it's just hard to keep your head cool enough to play it.

FISHKO: What is offered to the pianist and the audience in the Hammerklavier Sonata is part of what fascinates us about Beethoven in general.

Ms. UCHIDA: There is a huge struggle in his music, and I struggle with him. But I think that is an intrinsic quality of his. One doesn't struggle with Mozart. One struggles, but that is not his business. It came to him as if there was no other possibility.

Mr. TAUB: You know, we've all heard about seeing Amadeus, either the play or the movie, and sort of have a visual image, perhaps, of Mozart just sort of taking dictation from the gods, as it were. Beethoven was exactly the opposite. He often started with a rather mundane theme, and through dint of extraordinary perseverance, work, and that spark of creative imagination or inspiration created something from that mundane theme which, you know, is absolutely right on the ball throughout the ages.

FISHKO: This is not just conjecture. Beethoven's every written fragment and surviving musical sketch has been carefully studied.

Mr. TAUB: And you can even see evidence of his own tears on the page, smearing ink in particular with one of the late string quartets. You can see wine stains from when he brought sketchbooks into taverns. You can see wax from candles burning as he crafted his musical offerings to the world.

FISHKO: And many of these offerings were crafted at the piano. At a moment, by the way, when the piano itself was undergoing it's own revolutionary transformation. And so you have to ask, who was pushing whom forward?

Mr. TAUB: Did the piano manufacturers invent things and then Beethoven write for it? Actually I don't think so. I think that Beethoven as a leading pianist forced the piano manufacturers to come up with better products. They were forced to create instruments that could withstand his playing.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

FISHKO: By the time of the 1820s, on the last three Beethoven sonatas, which are often played together, the word innovation seems inadequate to describe what the composer had done. He had transformed the sonata, the instrument, and music in general. With this came his spirit, even in the face of his worsening deafness.

Ms. UCHIDA (Pianist): When are you stuck in hell you look up. He makes you look up. And there is heaven, a glimpse of it. And that unbelievable optimistic spirituality is so gripping.

FISHKO: The Opus 111, the final of the 32, has it all in there.

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

Mr. OHLSSON: You know, the titanic scowling genius shaking his fist at the stormy heavens raging against an unjust and cruel and a really terrible fate, in his deafness and his illness, and the way he transcends it, say, typically going from darkness to light...

(Soundbite of Beethoven sonata)

Mr. OHLSSON: You reach a place of serenity that is almost unique in the whole of musical art, wouldn't you say?

FISHKO: Yes, I would say. It is those extremes of intense and calm, complex and simple, classical and completely forward-looking that make these 32 pieces such a draw. One by one or in a cycle, Beethoven's message is heard, all these hundreds of years later. And ready or not, pianists are climbing the mountain to perform them over and over and over again. For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko in New York.

ELLIOTT: You can hear highlights from the sonatas and all nine of Beethoven's symphonies at our Web site, NPR.org.

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