PIANO: To hear or not to hear?

I recently attended a very inspiring piano recital, given by Susan Ellinger as part of the Regis University Concert series. Ms. Ellinger played a program of late Classical sonatas by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, each paired with a Debussy prelude.

Ms. Ellinger’s touch, wit, and philosophical understanding showed through in the Haydn for sure, and her pacing of the Beethoven Sonata op. 110 was masterful. She shared some interesting details about that sonata in particular…which lead me on a quest for more info about Beethoven as a person.

Ms. Ellinger remarked that some sources see this sonata as autobiographical, but with evidence of Beethoven’s spiritual leanings…that the sonata also depicts Christ’s death and resurrection. It was in fact published on Dec 25, 1821. (Beethoven was battling jaundice and rheumatism at the time, always a lovely combination).

I played this sonata in college; I found it extremely artistically rewarding, though not as technically demanding as other late sonatas. Listening to Ms. Ellinger, I realized how much pain Beethoven must have experienced….and how all of it comes out in this one piece of work.

Reading more about Beethoven, I was struck by the polarized, contradictory highs and lows of his life. He never married, yet was passionate towards certain women, and was extremely loyal and responsible for his family (he had to become the patriarch at one time because his father was too busy getting drunk and squandering the family money). He achieved immense popularity and success in his lifetime, but felt bitter for not being seen as noble. (The famous “van” versus “von” court battle). He loved to play the piano as a child, but his lessons were not a source of the nurtured joy that modern teachers strive to create. One of his teachers suffered from insomnia and would pull poor young Beethoven out of bed in the middle of the night to practice. His father attempted to exploit him as a wunderkind a la Mozart, and the posters advertising his concert listed his age as one year younger…so he would appear more “miraculous.”

Not to mention his deafness. How ironic to produce such masterworks, such stuff of heroic musical legend and yet he could not hear. Oblivious to the thunderous applause that greeted many of his later works. And yet he kept composing.

And such is a testament to his incredible strength of character, his humanism and spirituality, of his famous Sagittarian optimism in the face of opposition, even when the opposition is his own body. A lot has gone into the creation of “Beethoven the genius” myth (his secretary burned any written materials that did not support this demi-god image), yet his compositions prove he was indeed a revolutionary force of nature.

I also wonder if his compositions would have been so revolutionary, so forward-thinking, so modern if he had NOT been deaf. Perhaps being lost in a world where all he could hear were the sounds in his head was truly an artistic gift. We can’t help but be influenced by what we hear. But in Beethoven’s case, we hear the pure weavings and workings of his mind and soul. Perhaps if he had retained his hearing, he would not have surmounted such artistic and spiritual heights. Beethoven experienced something truly profound. Rather than his hearing being externally focused, he was forced to listen inwards.

And now Beethoven has changed my life. I realize though his story that music is so much more than pretty sounds, delicious little tidbits for the ear. I sometimes feel guilty for participating in a profession that seems so indulgent at times. What lasting value can I give to someone by playing notes written by a dead white guy? What lasting value is there in entertainment? But sitting in the concert, listening to Ms. Ellinger play this incredible sonata written by a man who lived almost 200 years ago, I realized that music is more than sound. It’s not even about right notes or right rhythms. It’s about the transformation that occurs within the heart and mind of the listener, through the music. Music is a mere vehicle for something vaster and deeper than we can imagine.

And so, fellow artists, teachers, and students, ours is truly one of the most noble professions on this earth. And if that got too esoteric, here’s something lighter:

I’d love to hear your thoughts, or how you feel about Beethoven and his music :-) Your comments are always welcome.