I’m pleased to say that my audience for the Beethoven lecture-recital yesterday was much bigger than I or the organisers had anticipated. Extra chairs needed to be put out, and there was a lovely buzz in the room when I came in. It seemed that people were pleased by the prospect of hearing a player’s thoughts on the matter at hand(s).
I said to one of the hall staff afterwards that I was surprised there was such a good crowd for a lecture-recital. With a straight face he replied, ‘Maybe if it had been just a recital there would have been twice as many of them!’
I had thought for a long time about how to speak about a late Beethoven piano sonata to an audience of non-specialists. That is to say, I knew there were a few specialists in the audience (fellow musicians, teachers) but I had to assume that the majority of people might not have been familiar with the piece at all. I also decided to assume that they were not familiar with the academic language of musical analysis: subjects, second subjects, expositions, key-structure, transitions, recapitulations, stretto, coda, and all the rest. I’ve seen too many eyes glaze over when being told about modulation to the subdominant minor.
So, what to talk about instead? Well, luckily with Beethoven there is plenty of human interest to start from – and in the case of his late work, the effect of his deafness on his music. Then there’s the evidence of his late-flowering interest in formal religion and prayer, which seems relevant for the A flat major sonata. There’s his earthy humour, breaking through in the form of folk-songs with texts not stated but imparting a certain flavour to the music. And then there’s the way the work unfolds as if in a theatre piece, with larger acts and smaller scenes within them. There’s the way that it feels to play the piece, its physical demands and what those might mean. And there are all the metaphors that come to mind as one plays or listens to such a piece – striving upwards, exploring the dark depths, trying to be intact, failing to be intact, looking for stability, and so on. Using language of poetry or drama, it turned out to be possible to say all that I wanted to say without falling back on talk of cadences or metric modulation.