Jonathan Biss releases 'Beethoven's Shadow' for Kindle
Jonathan Biss’s essay Beethoven’s Shadow is now available as a Kindle single on Amazon UK and US.
Beethoven's Shadow is a series of reflections by the pianist on the task of taking on a recording cycle of Beethoven's complete piano sonatas. He discusses his own relationship to the composer and some of the Beethoven pianists who have come before him. This essay is a culmination of Biss's recent semi-autobiographical writings; he has been blogging regularly on his own website since 2007, last year chronicling his preparation for a recital for the Carnegie Hall.
Released on 17 December 2011 to coincide with 241st anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Jonathan Biss’s 19,000 word essay has become one of Amazon’s top-ten selling Kindle Singles. It precedes the release of Biss’s first volume of Beethoven Sonatas on the Onyx Classics label, 9 January. Click here for more information on this release.
Watch Jonathan Biss talking about Beethoven on PBS:
Watch Conversastion: Pianist Jonathan Biss on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
Extract: Chapter 3 from Beethoven's Shadow, by Jonathan Biss
My first experience of the Beethoven Sonatas as a body of work came when I was 13 years old. I had travelled to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore to play for Leon Fleisher, who several years later would become my teacher and one of the great influences of my life. Coincidentally, that same weekend, his students, between them, were performing the sonatas, complete, in a marathon session beginning early in the morning and ending somewhat past midnight. I arrived in time for the Op. 31 Sonatas (numbers 16 through 18, of 32) and stayed, excepting a short dinner break, to the end. I had rather dutifully brought the scores with me;(1) the experience was so powerful — so visceral — that I can still, when looking at certain places in those scores, recall both the most mundane details (the modesty of the bow that preceded what seemed to me a titanic performance of the Hammerklavier; the way my legs were crossed during the celestial modulation into E flat major in the second movement of Op. 111) and the accompanying sensations (an actual physical pain in my head at the effort to process what I was hearing in the former case, an actual inability to breathe in the latter). When you are 13, with an abiding love for music and the ambition to make a life with it, you assume you know — at least in the most rudimentary sense — what Beethoven is. I staggered out of Peabody that night thinking, for the first of what would be many times over the subsequent years, that besotted as I was, I didn’t have a clue.
The following day, in Mr. Fleisher’s studio on Peabody’s fourth floor, this feeling was not only reinforced, but actively encouraged. In the lesson’s immediate aftermath, I felt that the things we worked on opened countless new avenues to be explored, but 17 years (and many, many subsequent lessons) later, I remember only two things Mr. Fleisher said that day. I played the Sonata Op. 2, No. 3 for him, one of so many early works that give the lie to the notion that spirituality was a primary concern for Beethoven only in his last years.(2)(3) At one point during the lesson, I struggled to execute something Mr. Fleisher had asked for, and I remarked at how difficult it was. It was a throwaway comment, but his reply was dead serious: “That’s right. As my sainted teacher used to say, no performance of a great piece of music can ever be as great as the work itself; it remains more perfect in the imagination.” In the years since, I have both consoled myself with these words, and worn them as a badge of honor; they form the basis of a philosophy that I carry with me as I address this music each day (and that has proved indispensible whenever the struggle has threatened to overwhelm me, as it did that April afternoon years later, with Op. 109).
The other memorable moment in the lesson came as we were working on the Sonata’s second movement, one of the first of Beethoven’s many experiments with stopping time, a movement in which silence and space are at least as important as sound. This sort of music, which requires tremendous patience and an impossible degree of inner calm, does not exactly come naturally to a 13-year-old, and Mr. Fleisher, for all his wisdom and all his restless brilliance, struggled for the words that would produce something like the desired effect out of me. Then suddenly, his typically laser-beam eyes went all vague, staring off into the middle distance. “This music isn’t about what’s here; it’s about what’s there.” I was utterly confused until I followed his gaze to the walls of the studio, which were covered, almost in their entirety, with posters of the Milky Way. “Most composers are interested in the sensory, the tactile — what we can see, feel, touch. He is interested in what is beyond our perception. That over there, the galaxy, the infinite: That is Beethoven.”
(1) It’s not a mode of listening I would recommend. Having the score — a pallid sort of representation of a piece of music, musical notation being an immensely imperfect thing — tends to reduce the listening experience to, forgive me, scorekeeping: Does what I hear conform to what I (think I) see, or not? I don’t mean to suggest that the marks on the page are unimportant — however frustrating they may be in terms of what they don’t tell us, they still represent our best hope of arriving at an understanding of a composer’s intent. It’s just that looking at them while listening is a distraction from the sense of narrative that a great performance can provide, with no great redeeming value. The score may reveal certain flaws in a performance, but it is unlikely to explain its magic: for that, one needs intuition, insight and above all, total openness to what one is hearing. But I was 13, and this was the class of Leon Fleisher, and I was not about to risk looking unprepared.
(2) This seems to me an essential truth about Beethoven: His language evolved more over the course of his lifetime than any other composer’s, at least until Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and yet his musical personality — rigorous yet searching, other-worldly yet human, and above all, idealistic — is fully in place from the earliest works and remains remarkably unchanged.
(3) Schnabel’s performance, available on the complete set, has this quality in spades.
© 2011 Jonathan Biss
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Jonathan Biss: My mission to spread the word about Beethoven
Pianist Jonathan Biss talks to Ivan Hewett about his 'Kindle Single’ in which he explores the mystery of the sonatas.
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
5 January 2012
The idea of a pianist trying to explain what he does seems strangely perverse, like a bird choosing to walk rather than fly. Music, after all, is a way of saying the unsayable. And yet the interesting thing is that quite a few have tried.
The latest is the young American pianist Jonathan Biss. Last month he became the first classical musician to publish a Kindle Single – a short e-book of about 18,000 words. Entitled Beethoven’s Shadow, Biss’s book is a meditation on the art of performing Beethoven’s piano sonatas. He’s following in the footsteps of great pianists who’ve written about performing Beethoven, above all Artur Schnabel, who made the first complete recording of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in the mid-1930s.
Was Schnabel an inspiration for his own book? Biss, 31, laughs ruefully. “Schnabel features an awful lot in my book, so I thought I should re-read his own. In his introduction, Schnabel explains that he almost turned down the invitation to put his thoughts on paper because, as he put it, 'I’m a gardener, not a botanist.’ I thought, Schnabel has just explained why I shouldn’t be doing this!”
So why did he do it? “Two reasons, I guess. I wanted to approach the thing I love from a different angle, so it wasn’t just about giving concerts and making recordings. And I also wanted to offer people a way into this incredible music.”
Was it taxing? “Oh, it was incredibly taxing. I never found I could sit down and start writing, there was always a two-hour period of just screwing around, walking around my coffee table before anything approaching serious thinking came forth.”
What eventually came forth is a fascinating and closely argued disquisition on playing Beethoven, from four angles. “Firstly, it’s to do with my own engagement with Beethoven, what he means to me, how my view of his music has changed over time. Then there’s the relationship with the live audience and how I try to communicate what’s on the page. The third element is the strange relationship with the microphone in the recording studio. I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I’ve just started a project to record all the Beethoven sonatas. Finally, there’s my relationship with the amazing legacy of Beethoven on disc."
That deep, many-sided immersion in Beethoven started early. Both of Biss’s parents are distinguished violinists who teach at the renowned school of music at the University of Indiana. “Music was the spoken language in our household,” says Biss. “From the beginning I was aware of Beethoven as this giant who tussled and wrestled with musical ideas.” By the age of 10 he’d already learned one of the Beethoven sonatas that features on his new CD.
Given the fabulously rich performing tradition around these 32 sonatas, isn’t it difficult to find something new to say about them? Biss feels that’s the wrong question.
“I don’t think it’s the job of the interpreter to look for something new. These pieces are so vast and many-sided, they’ll always show something new to each generation, and, if you have the personality of a performer, something personal will inevitably come out. If you say to yourself, 'I want to say something that hasn’t been said before’, you’re observing yourself observing the music, which isn’t honest. An intensity of sincerity is the most important quality a performer can bring to this music.”
After more than 20 years’ immersion in Beethoven’s sonatas, their sheer variety still astonishes Biss. “The interesting thing about preparing the Beethoven sonatas is how little working on one sonata helps with the next, because it’s always so totally different. That’s why I don’t really buy this idea of Beethoven’s music being divided into three or four periods. You can find that spiritual quality of late Beethoven right from Opus 1.”
Biss is a remarkably articulate musician, but when I ask what that elusive “spiritual” quality consists in, words fail him.
“Oh Lord, if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t need to play the music! You find it above all in the slow movements, where he has this amazing ability to suspend time for pages and pages. There’s something completely mysterious and alchemical in those passages that completely eludes me.”
So much for Biss’s relationship with Beethoven’s music. What about the reader? “My model for the reader was someone who knew they loved music in general, but certainly not someone who would know how Beethoven’s sonata Opus 109 goes. I didn’t want to preach to the converted. I wanted to see if I could make a lightbulb come on in someone’s head, so they think ,'Ah, I really want to hear that piece.’ If someone has that response, I’ll be very very happy.”
This essay is available now as a Kindle Single from Amazon. Buy it here: UK /
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