1870 marked the 100th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. After denying the invitation from the “Beethoven Committee of Vienna” to appear onstage together with Liszt, Joachim and Clara Schumann to celebrate the event, Richard Wagner decided to write an essay instead. While this essay is notable as a broader investigation of Wagner’s aesthetic philosophy and ideals, it also remains an insightful exploration of both the artistic significance and enduring popularity of Beethoven’s music. For Wagner Beethoven’s music isn’t merely beautiful, a concept that is for him constrained by convention and subject to changing tastes and fashions, but sublime. Beethoven reveals a sort of Platonic ideal of melody, thereby liberating it from its historical moment, and connecting his listeners with a timeless, universal human truth. For Wagner it is Beethoven’s radical defiance against tradition and his intense emotional expressions that make his music a vehicle for revelation.
Though these strains are apparent across Beethoven’s entire oeuvre, it is in his piano sonatas that Beethoven’s boldest thoughts and gestures shine most brightly. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Beethoven was widely known as a brilliant pianist in his own right, giving him the natural freedom to stretch the boundaries of the instrument. Perhaps, though, it is also due to the nature of the piano itself: a solo instrument that lends itself to the realm of the personal and inward, even the diaristic, and one that, by allowing tones only to be struck and not sustained or driven forward, abstracts music into its most intellectually pure form, making it a prime medium for musical exploration and innovation.
To explore Beethoven’s piano sonatas is to explore Beethoven’s musical innovations. In these 32 pieces, we see the concentrated version of the familiar trajectory guiding us from the Classical era into the Romantic: the experimental mimicry of his early years, the ego-driven defiance of his middle years where, at the height of his compositional powers, he most fully challenges convention, and finally his late years where, fully deaf, he introspectively explores the mysteries of life and death. more “Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: The New New Testament of Piano Repertoire”