On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 2: Julian Jacobson

Is Beethoven my favourite composer, as people tend to assume? The answer is “yes and no and perhaps”. My personal definition of a truly great composer is one who, when you’re listening to one of his (I’m afraid for these purposes and at this point in history and with my limited knowledge of music it has to be “his”) great pieces, you are absolutely certain that he is the greatest composer of all time. For me only five composers fit this definition: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner – even if I could not live without Debussy and Ravel. Of these five I’m temperamentally closest to Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. And I have no doubt that the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven constitute one of the greatest bodies of music in history, without having to be reminded of the tired old Hans von Bülow designation of them as the “New Testament” for pianists.

Wagner thought that the three greatest composers were Bach, Beethoven and himself, and although no other composer could get away with such a statement perhaps he was right. At any rate they all convey something deep and essential about the human spirit, and convey it liberally, magnificently and unselfconsciously. Bach is of course an impregnable fortress, probably the greatest composer ever, but perhaps I just need a more powerful “fix” of modern human emotion that I can relate to my own life. Wagner, in Tristan, Meistersinger and the Ring, provides that in spades. But Beethoven, in his fundamental goodness, humility – even naïveté – and compositional mastery and emotional intensity, is after all probably the one I’m closest to. He best embodies his own definition “Art demands of us that we shall not stand still”, which after all is not a bad maxim for life itself.

Sviatoslav Richter, no less, thought that the piano sonatas represented the high point of Beethoven’s oeuvre and who am I to disagree? At any rate I have found the 32 sonatas endlessly challenging and rewarding in equal measure, and ever open to exploration – you never feel you’ve got to the end of them, or, as Schnabel said, the music remains “greater than it can be performed”. Beethoven constantly reinvented himself, so that each sonata and each movement invites an individual response and I feel, not so much like a Beethoven pianist, but 32 Beethoven pianists if not 99 (if I’ve counted correctly) – a different pianist for every movement. Of all great composers he seems most to inhabit every moment of his music with complete absorption and concentration, never repeating himself or resorting to mechanical formulae – to such an extent that when he is momentarily less than completely himself, possibly (for instance) in parts of the B flat Sonata op 22, or the first movement of the little G major Sonata op 49 no 2 which he never intended for publication anyway, we are surprised by the momentary lack of total “Beethovenishness”.

In fact I didn’t in any sense start off as a Beethoven pianist, or with the intention of being one. In the early part of my career I worked mainly as a duo and chamber music pianist, with a great deal of contemporary music in the mix. In the late 1980s, feeling rather unsatisfied with what I was doing, the thought came upon me that what my life really needed was a major solo “classical” project, and why not the Beethoven sonatas? At this point I had only about ten of them in my repertoire – I claim to be the only Beethoven pianist (if I may call myself that) who learnt the “Pathétique” and “Moonlight” Sonatas at the age of 45. The first one I learnt after taking the decision was the E minor op 90, at that point totally unfamiliar to me apart from the opening bars that you see in the index. I also decided that it would be impossible to plan a cycle before I had learnt the Hammerklavier, so I put that into a recital at Dartington and just about survived.

As a busy jobbing pianist it was very difficult progressing quickly enough through the remaining sonatas (as well as revising old ones). The crucial factor that enabled me to finish the project was my appointment in 1992 as Head of Keyboard Studies at the (now “Royal”) Welsh College of Music and Drama as for the first time in my life I had a salary! And so, in the summer vacation of 1994, I resisted all offers and other temptations and basically sat in my studio and learnt the remaining sonatas, attempting to absorb them at the rate of three a week. This was an immensely enriching and fulfilling experience, getting – or so I hoped – deeply into Beethoven’s mind and way of working and hardly being distracted by any other music at all.

My first cycle had been due to happen at the Welsh College in 1995 but it had to be postponed. My friend and colleague John Thwaites came to the rescue and invited me to do the cycle at Christ’s Hospital where he was Head of Piano at the time. The cellist Colin Carr then arranged for me to do the cycle at St John’s College Oxford, and finally I could do it at the Welsh College. These were all in eight concerts, spread over several weeks. And so, by the summer of 1996 I had already given three complete cycles and had paved the way for the idea of doing them all in a single day. After a  cycle at Trinity College (1998) and a “Millennium” cycle in 2000 (in which each programme was augmented by a new commission from composers including Charles Camilleri, Philip Cashian and Keith Tippett)  – I finally felt ready in 2003 to go for the marathon!



On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 1: Julian Jacobson

Well, here we go again! Every time I do it – and the last time was in October 2013 – I swear I’ll never do it again (attempt to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory in a single day). But two things happened in the last couple of years: firstly the Beethoven 250th anniversary year, during which I performed a great many of the sonatas, curated an entire cycle for the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe, wrote programme notes on all of them, taught, coached and gave masterclasses on then; and secondly the pandemic which gave us all time to reflect on what we might do when we were able to perform “live” again. And so I found myself inexorably drawn to the idea of having one more bash at it! Actually two, because my friend and colleague Enrique Graf very kindly and perhaps courageously invited me to repeat it at his festival in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. This will be on November 18 2022, my actual 75th birthday.

Having done the marathon in London first in 2003 , then 2013, I initially thought of doing it in 2023, but it seemed too far off and then I hit on the idea of making it a 75th birthday challenge for myself. I somehow doubt if I’ll be doing it again in another ten years’ time, but you never know!

Why should one play all the sonatas in a single sitting anyway? Having previously given seven cycles in the normal way, in seven or eight concerts spread over several weeks, I started wondering if it might be possible and interesting to play them all in a day, and the idea wouldn’t let me go. In the event, many people said how absorbing it was to follow the development of a genius from the early “rough diamonds”, full of character already, to the realised sublimity of op 109, 110 and 111 (I play them in chronological, or opus number, order). Naturally few people remain for all 32, but many hear enough of them to get a full enough picture! And, like the 2013 marathon, this one will also be relayed live online and available for some time after the event.

I’ll be updating this blog regularly from now on, with my ongoing thoughts on preparing the marathon as well as my thinking on specific sonatas and Beethoven interpretation generally!