I used to play the piano a lot growing up, but finally ran out of time for it when the kids arrived. They took lessons for a while but were never especially interested, so the old piano (which had been in the family since I was a kid and had seen better days) went to piano heaven.
I got to be pretty good in high school, but I never had the drive to get any further than pretty good. Now, we’ll see.
The music in the photo is the Arietta from Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata. I am showing off–I can’t play the thing. Yet. Or maybe ever–it offers technical challenges that my fingers may not be up to.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a quick plug for my novel Summit, in which I get to imagine what it’s like to be a brilliant (and eccentric) classical pianist, in the mold of Glenn Gould.
That would be the second movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 111 — the final movement of his 32nd and final piano sonata. Here is what a couple of pianists say about it:
The pianist Robert Taub has called it “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.” Alfred Brendel commented of the second movement that “what is to be expressed here is distilled experience” and “perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand”.
Andras Schiff, in his lectures on the Beethoven piano sonatas, finally runs out of words (acceptance, forgiveness) to describe the last few minutes of the sonata, and can only play the music. At some point after the first few variations in the final movement, the music takes off into another realm of spirit and meaning, leaving language behind.
Perhaps the most moving piano recital I ever attended was Rudolf Serkin late in life playing Beethoven’s Opus 109, 110, and 111 at Symphony Hall. He played the 111 after the intermission, and that was it. No encores. Just 25 or so minutes of music — after the arietta, there was nothing left to say.
Here is Claudio Arrau playing the sonata in Bonn in 1977, when he was over 70. Looks like the air conditioning was broken, because the sweat pours off him. No matter. I heard Arrau play about a decade later, and he was moving so slowly I thought he’d never make it to the piano. His tempi were also slow, but he made them work.
Here we are on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination — a time for funeral marches. But at some point you have to get past the funeral marches — and Opus 111 is where you need to go — the triumph of optimism over anguish.
Here is conductor Erich Leinsdorf announcing the assassination to a stunned audience at the Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concert. What I find particularly poignant is the second set of gasps when he says that the orchestra is throwing away its scheduled program and instead will play the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica. It’s as if the audience didn’t quite process his first statement, and the change in program made them understand the reality of what had happened.
I can’t embed the audio, but the WGBH archive has a clip that starts with the legendary announcer William Pierce, unaware that the world had change out from underneath him and everyone else, introducing the Rimsky-Korsakov piece that was scheduled to lead off the concert.
Time has an interview with the BSO music librarian, who hasn’t been able to bring himself to listen to the broadcast in the 50 years since:
With the show due to start in less than ten minutes’ time, Shisler got a relayed message from Leinsdorf himself. Run to the archives, put out and distribute the music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The president is dead.
Such was the rush that Shisler remembers little of his feelings from that moment. His memories get clearer of the minutes immediately following, when it was incumbent upon him to hasten to the stage with scores in hand. “The musicians were already there on the stage, in their places and of course the hall was filled with people. I had to tell each of the musicians as I was handing out the music what was going on. That was the first they knew of the death. It wasn’t an easy moment, for them or for me.”
I recall that the pop stations in Boston switched over to classical music for that weekend, realizing that Beethoven had more to say to us during that awful time than “Louie Louie,” which as at the top of the charts in November 1963. It sure doesn’t seem like half a century has passed.