This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.
One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.
Music appreciation is lifelong
One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.
The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.
There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:
Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician
Patronaged, then independent musician
Mixed ability during independent period
Highly creative during Patronage
Poor ability during independent period
Poor creativity during Patronage
Highly creative during independent period
The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.
The cult of Beethoven worship
Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).
A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.
Changing my own attitude to music appreciation
I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.