My introduction to Beethoven's music antedated my first birthday: The Eighth Symphony's Allegretto scherzando movement entered my life by way of a recording my parents had bought for their own pleasure; Its insistent rhythm and the alternation of courtly elegance with boisterous gruffness fascinated me. When I began piano lessons at the Manhattan School of Music's lower school. that institution had a facsimile of a Beethoven manuscript framed in the lobby (the "Appassionata" Sonata. I believe). The incredible intensity and untidiness of that scribble indelibly influenced my perception of the composer's musical--and personal--style. Many years later. I had yet another experience that brought me into close contact with what I believe to be Beethoven's soul: called upon to give an impromptu recital, I played several of the sonatas and the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. on an elderly, turn-of-the-century Steinway that was in dire need of repair--and quite possibly, beyond it. Yet is uneven tone--oscillating between mellowness and cutting plangency--and loose action (my fingers could feel the rebound of the hammers as an after-knock). made me feel informally relaxed and full of excitement. A musician in the audience came backstage after the concert, obviously moved, and exclaimed the Beethoven needs "a homemade piano." Instantly. I knew what he meant.
Long before the incident with the battered Steinway. my preference for a tautly compressed, generously lyrical but vehemently sanguine Beethoven style had been formulated by a series of performances (and recordings) by Schnabel. Serkin, Toscanini. Szigeti and the Budapest Quartet. Their divergencies notwithstanding, all of these artists. and a few more as well (the Vegh and Busch quartets come to mind, as do Casals and Huberman), understood Beethoven's quintessential humanity and, in their inimitable ways, balanced the dichotomy of imperious restlessness, exalted benignity and a patrician discipline so deeply imbedded as to be second nature. A dash of explosive temper, an essential ingredient for any comprehensive Beethoven interpretation, must never be allowed to impede the context of patient Classical order. Nor should repose be mistaken for complacent girth: far too many musicians with Romantic hindsight (and a degree of nearsightedness) look back on Beethoven's ever terse, restless music and see it through the distorting mirror of Wagner and Mahler. Conversely, modern performers--inhibited by musicological strictures and "purist" critics--have overreacted in the opposite direction, with an outlook that treats their subject as a denatured conservative of our own time rather than an eighteenth century revolutionary with forward looking aspirations.
The rhythmic insistence in the Eighth Symphony's second movement that so appealed to my burgeoning musical impulses is indeed a key to understanding the elemental appeal of Beethoven's style. More often than not, he stresses a vigorous, pounding downbeat at precisely the point where Mozart would have left a feminine phrase resolution to its own resources. Beethoven's use of fragments and mottos (note the obsessive build-up toward the end of the Seventh Symphony's finale), gives a stride and elation to his music that can serve as a common denominator for all music-lovers, of whatever sophistication. The old Steinway I encountered was undoubtedly closer to the piano of Beethoven's day in that it permitted the rhythmic elements to punctuate the total sonority with relative ease. Today's well groomed, nine foot concert grand--for all its cushioned splendor--has a tendency to quell the wiry impact of the music with an unsuitable homogeneity. Though I emphatically disapprove of that small band of pedants advocating a wholesale return to period instruments, I do think it wise to admonish against exploiting the amorphous tonal luxuriance of the modern instruments indiscriminately. In particular, performers should be wary about revising Beethoven's figurations in accordance with the extended keyboard range of our own time. In this controversy, there is an interesting inconsistency: although many contemporary musicians tend to reject most of the changes made in the treble by nineteenth century editors (Von Bulow's suggestion that the end of first movement bar 75 be played an octave higher in the Op. 100 Sonata, for instance; a similar modification, bar 54 of Op. 31, No. 3's scherzo, is less universally disfavored), at least half of these same musicians often look more permissively upon extra octaves in the bass--similarly involving notes not at Beethoven's disposal. To my way of hearing, incursions of deep, velvety bass at the end of the Waldstein Sonata's first movement and in bar 2 of the same work's Adagio motto subtly alter the tonal impression from searing militancy to overripe contentment. While Beethoven's sensibility and appreciation of color and tonal beauty were highly developed, he was not a sensualist--and he certainly could not have been less interested in beauty parlor cosmetics. As his decline in hearing caused him to retreat ever more deeply into his own private inner ear, the music he produced became progressively less concerned with outward timbre, and increasingly more committed to inner logic. Friends visiting the composer in his lattermost days report on finding his Broadwood Piano in deplorable condition--a veritable tangle of broken hammers and twisted metal, and around this time, Beethoven confessed to finding that piano "unsatisfactory." There is little doubt that his creative ebullition burst the bonds and strictures of his epoch; And there is none whatsoever that his experimentation ultimately caused the piano to reach maturity. Uncompromising restlessness, then, is a crucial element in his music, and it must never be allowed to settle into bourgeois smoothness.
Beethoven's handwriting, upon reflection, was partially misleading. For while he wrote messily--illegibly, in fact (how printers deciphered his chaotic looking autographs at all is one of life's little mysteries)--he worked arduously over his masterpieces, making many visible changes in them (quite unlike Mozart who apparently did most of the dirty work in his head and not on paper). The ghastly chaos, then, shows Beethoven's frightening intensity but little of the inner strength and supreme self-confidence that makes his music what it is. That music best responds to an iron hand and a heart of gold; Few of mankind's creations have such a strong ego and yet such utter selflessness. Unlike the first-person-singular utterances of Chopin, Beethoven's style unfolds--even in his tenderest moments--with third-person plural, symphonic scope. It is music written for all of humanity, capable of evoking uniquely personal responses in each individual of the multitudes who listen. Its ennobling strength and irascible humor, combined with an Olympian outlook go a long way to explaining how this suffering titan survived deafness, incomprehension, isolation, and his own unfulfilled yearnings for love, happiness and repose.
Harris Goldsmith is a concert pianist whose recording of two Beethoven sonatas is announced elsewhere in this issue of MHR. Mr. Goldsmith also teaches at SUNY /Binghamton and Horace Mann School and write:; record reviews for High Fidelity--Musical America.