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Plenty of Clues Yet Secrets Remain: Brendel’s Beethoven Lecture at Harvard


One of the world’s most revered pianists presented The Louis C. Elson Lecture at Paine Concert Hall, Harvard University, Thursday afternoon, October 14. Wearing a jacket and shirt without a tie, Alfred Brendel spent the better part of an hour and a quarter reading from his prepared notes and playing excerpts mostly from memory. His lecture: “Musical Character in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.” Free tickets had disappeared weeks ago. Paine Hall was full, and it was anybody’s guess who might have been in attendance to catch the pianist live and hear his thoughts on a lifetime of playing Beethoven.

Pianists and musicians, scholars and teachers, professionals and music lovers were drawn to the presence of a profound, unmistakable and imitable artist of piano performance— if not just to savor any revelation, any insight from this master. Violinist and teacher Daniel Stepner, also in attendance, told me he had come to hear a man who has “carved his own niche in the world of concert music…. Human,… honest, there is no one else like him.”

Robert Levin (Harvard’s Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of Music) introduced Alfred Brendel. Like him, Prof. Levin has carved out his own niche in the big world of concert music. Echoing Stepner, he spoke about his own career’s trajectory as having come from hearing a recording of Mr. Brendel that his father brought home when he was a child. Levin described Brendel as having a “stylistic naturalness, deftness,” and one who has “mastered the musical surface and made it sublime.”

With so many in attendance, one can well imagine there would be many different takes on what Mr. Brendel would have to say about performing Beethoven sonatas. There were certainly plenty of clues from the master. His interpretations of Beethoven are informed, he says, by “all that is before you.” For Mr. Brendel, this means starting with character (or mood). Aestheticians, he believes, best articulate the idea of character, that being “the psychological and the moral, the former explainable, the latter remaining silent.”

Composer and teacher Arnold Schoenberg convinces; violinist Rudolf Kolisch does not. Schoenberg advises that character and mood always be kept in mind; Kolisch worked out a kind of detailed formula of relating certain tempos with certain expressions. Here, Mr. Brendel expressed his skepticism. Returning to his biggest clue, “all” must be considered; tempo alone is not enough to identify character in music.

Where “speaking, painting, dancing and singing” point to character, the “four elements” inform Mr. Brendel about nature, which he perceives in Beethoven as the “superior power and the angelic.” He called upon pianist, composer, and teacher Carl Czerny’s direction with the declamatory in Opus 31, No. 3, telling us that rests also play a role in musical speech. Singing can be heard in the Minuet of that sonata. Horse and rider provide the image for painting and dancing in Opus 31, No. 2. At first glance, inexplicable nonsense from Beethoven permeating opus 31, No. 1 begins to make sense as humor, even as comic—something at which Mr. Brendel is a specialist. He observed that in the three piano sonatas of Opus 31 Beethoven shows us unequivocally how each of the three has its own personal character. Fire is in the fugue in Opus 31, No. 3; water, in the perpetual motion movement of Opus 54; and air—“music must have a breath of fresh air”—in the weightlessness of the first movement of Opus 109. The fourth element, earth, he finds in its second movement.

Structure captures Mr. Brendel’s attention as do interval relationships, motivic play, and other purely musical data. But even with such data, Mr. Brendel says you still cannot “pin down” the character of a Beethoven sonata.

“Beethoven’s goal is emotion, or music’s character.” “Longing, rapture, despair, relief” and so forth find their way into Beethoven “without the aid of any descriptive device.” A Beethoven “pianissimo means misterioso,” the pianist said. Further still, Mr. Brendel affirms that every one of the 32 sonatas has its own individual character. The performer is responsible for identifying and expressing each. While Alfred Brendel allowed us entry into his world, ultimately, as with Beethoven’s pianissimo, many secrets and mysteries remain in the pianist’s unforgettable interpretations.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. These comments are spot on- Brendel tried to “fix” the NEC pianists who played for his master class, but what became apparent, is only cured by age- youth wastes its innate energies – and playing the piano involves more than laying out the notes, dynamics, surges- Brendel “speaks” and every note has to have its personal meaning- a lot to handle! makes one wish he would never retire – pianists rarely evolve to his level

    Comment by virginia eskin — October 16, 2010 at 2:19 am

  2. At his recent masterclass at Boston Conservatory Till Fellner kept telling student that in Beethoven sonatas at least, there were no unimportant notes- and Till is a mere 38

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 16, 2010 at 3:42 pm

  3. Mr. Brendel’s remarks and teaching at New England Conservatory were a revelation. A revelation of his own lifelong quest, even struggle to integrate deep feeling with deep thought. The world may have changed, and young virtuosos may hear things differently than he does, yet Alfred Brendel willed himself to be a great musical performer and he seems inclined to help others to follow that example.

    Comment by Florestan — October 17, 2010 at 1:01 am

  4. At a question and answer forum at NEC a few years back, I asked him why he didn’t perform contemporary music, even one piece. In essence, he said it wasn’t his thing. Very sad. Imagine such a thinker giving sunlight to a living composer. It is nice to question the musical character of Beethoven and other dead guys but I would love to see him battle it out with a living composer.
    I love his humor and his touch, but wish he could apply it to something more.

    I do enjoy his writing, but not as much as his music.

    ps. I did find it amazing how few question came from students in the audience (NEC), as if he were someone to hear and not ask. How can I know how he finds “character in the sonatas” or anything without questioning? Shall I just accept what he wants me to hear? No.

    Comment by aaron — October 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

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