Beethoven would have been surprised by the reverence his sonatas inspire today. Plus, why Mahler's 8th shouldn't be performed at St Paul'sby Martin Kettle / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Recycling the sonatas
Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are venerated for their range, originality and depth. The 19th-century pianist Hans von Bülow famously dubbed them the New Testament of the pianistic Bible (the Old Testament was Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). A 20th-century successor, Louis Kentner, suggested that they should be presented to the first Martian visitor as proof of the achievements of Earthling civilisation. Both remarks are a reminder that Beethoven’s sonatas have long possessed a status that goes beyond the notes on the page.
A performance of the complete cycle, like the one being undertaken by Daniel Barenboim in the Royal Festival Hall from late January, is therefore a major musical venture. But it is more than that. In venerating Beethoven’s achievement in this extended way, something beyond the music is being asserted. There is a moral and even religious element to the ritual.
No pianist of modern times is as prominent a figure as Barenboim (pictured, below right). Whether as Reith lecturer or as one-man middle east peace process, let alone as the widower of Jacqueline du Pré, Barenboim has acquired a public status that transcends even his formidable ability at the keyboard—a status he has in some respects sought as much as acquired by accident. Characteristically, his Beethoven cycle is to be accompanied by three public discussions under the title “Artist as Leader.”
We will have to wait and see exactly what this title means. But I doubt he is claiming to be a political leader, at least in the conventional sense. No Paderewski he. As Barenboim once told me in an interview, laughing loudly, if he stood for office in his country of Israel, only Arabs would vote for him. Rather, he seems to be posing the question of whether great musicians can somehow offer moral leadership within civil society—as Pau Casals or Mstislav Rostropovich did.
Yet the music matters too. I doubt that Barenboim would be pondering the artist as leader if he was playing the complete works of Mozart, Brahms or Debussy. Though concert audiences are familiar with cycles of the works of particular composers—like the Mahler symphonies that Valery Gergiev is performing in London this season—Beethoven projects occupy a revered place, and the piano sonatas the most revered of all.
This would have surprised Beethoven. Not because he did not think highly of…