The Life of Beethoven in a Day

Last Saturday, June 22, I had the unique experience of hearing pianist Stewart Goodyear play all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas in a single day. The performance was at the Berlind Theater, which is part of the McCarter Theater Center of Princeton University.  It was not just hearing approximately 9 hours of music, but seeing the life of Beethoven in its entirety. 

In the week leading up to this “Sonatathon” several friends asked a simple question: Why?

That question was answered in the program notes by the Scheide Professor of Music History at Princeton University Scott Burnham:

“They testify to nearly the entire span of his mature career as a composer, from his arrival in Vienna as a 22-year old tyro taking counterpoint lessons with Joseph Haydn all the way into the 1820s, when he was a well-established composer in his 50s. This span of some thirty years is broader than that of any other genre in Beethoven’s output…”

What was heard that day was not just 32 sonatas comprising of 102 movements, but a total immersion into the life and psychology of Beethoven. While it could be argued that the same could have been accomplished in a longer and less demanding timespan, the totality of the day forced one to make fresh connections and develop new understandings. 

Pianist and historian divided the sonatas, perhaps artificially, into three distinct periods: opus 2 through opus 22 (including the 2 opus 49 sonatas) are the early period sonatas, opus 26 through opus 57 are the middle sonatas and opus 78 through opus 111 are the late sonatas.  Goodyear divided the three programs of the day the same way. 

Stewart Goodyear brilliantly played all 9-hours from memory. I have often said that my criteria for a good performance is simple: teach me something new about the works I have known well nearly all of my life. He did that easily. What could have been an tedious exercise became a day of some of the most insightful playing I have heard. The result is that time suspended and 9 hours seemed like a short time. 

While I quoted program notes from Professor Burnham above, Goodyear added his own insights; which are also included in his recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas on the Marquis label (unfortunately there is no digital booklet with the download).  I put his recoded set right next to my treasured Schnabel recordings. 

Returning to the question of “Why?” What we saw was a movie about the life of Beethoven that was done, not with film, but with music. It was truly a day of learning. 

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  • Indeed a herculean event, which must have been a unique emotional experience to attend. I wish I had been able to be there. There is one thought I have to share, as to ‘why?’ There is a very important aspect of Beethoven’s life which comes into play. Of course, the music in and of itself is transforming, but there is the departure from the Haydn-esque lessons in the early works into the world of deafness, which took Mr. Beethoven into a world only he and/or other deaf afflicted people could begin to imagine–living in their own sound-less world. What if, and this is only an experiment, people covered their ears every day–increasingly more than the day before, until they could hear nothing? To compound the musical fixation with this loss of one of the most necessary of senses, perhaps only then can one get a glimpse of the inner turmoil Mr. Beethoven endured, which went into his compositional makeup. I was deaf until age three, and have strong memories of this frightening time of life. It must have been more frightening for Mr. Beethoven, because he knew the worst was coming, and he had to compose what he heard inside his head, rather than the true pitches he knew aloud.

    • chabrown

      Jeffrey, the “why” question has to do with why Goodyear did all 32 sonatas in a single day as opposed to spreading the performances out over several days.

      • My reply only went into a different dimension as to the ‘why’. It is a challenge to perform all 32, of course, but to listen to such a cycle, one has to be totally free of any distractions. My point only adds to the ‘how’ we listen with our ability to hear, while imagining the world that became Beethoven’s curse of silence. We take these works as we know them all too well, but if we add the element of how Beethoven composed these works as he became increasingly deaf, how might that adjust how we listen to these pieces in succession? Just food for thought.

      • Strayed off topic (once again–I’m notorious for that!). I liken the succession of sonatas, which is still, to me, incredible to do, to a mini-series on television. For those who remember those, it would take several days or weeks–or months–to get through a series. To derive the full impact of the life of Beethoven through his piano sonatas, to aurally gain from this succession from the early sonatas, as difficult as they are, to the freer formed, mini-operatic scenes in the latter sonatas, and use of long pedals, extended fugues etc, it would be less distracting to be able to feel this momentum in a single day. I remember the series done at New York’s Merkin Hall, using the various instruments used by Beethoven to compose the sonatas as the new instruments were introduced in his lifetime. This added to the ‘why’ he wrote the way he did for a particular new instrument. Perhaps the new instrument was a mellower sound, or a more facile keyboard action, or more brilliant sound, he wrote for them. But returning to the question, there is no doubt that hearing the cycle in close succession keeps the listener close by, without distractions and changes in their environment between sessions.

        • chabrown

          Great points Jeffrey

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