Beethoven sonatas: lessons with Leon Fleisher

Jonathan Biss: pianist...and eBook author (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)Jonathan Biss: pianist...and eBook author (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

My first experience of the Beethoven sonatas as a body of work came when I was 13 years old. I had flown 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 Opus 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. (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 away from the sense of narrative 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.) 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 which 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 Opus 111) and the 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) that went with them. When you are 13 years old, 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 Opus 2 number 3 for him, one of so many early works which gives the lie to the notion that spirituality was a primary concern for Beethoven only in his last years. (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.)  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 (Artur Schnabel) 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 I carry with me as I address this music each day (and which has proved indispensible whenever the struggle has threatened to overwhelm me).

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 which 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.'

'Beethoven's Shadow' is available to buy as Kindle Single from Amazon – click here.

Volume 1 of Jonathan Biss's recordings of Beethoven Sonatas is released by Onyx in January. You can listen to a track – the third movment from Sonata No 5 – below.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014