When I was about eight or nine, my favorite Beethoven symphony was his sixth. According to Mother, it tells the story of a group of people who go on a picnic and are caught in a rainstorm. I started calling that particular symphony the storm. “Mom, can I hear the storm?” I would ask when I wanted her to play that particular record.
At the time, we were living in Tucson, Arizona, and like the people in the story, our family often took picnic lunches to the mountains during the summer months to cool off and were occasionally caught in such a storm. Dad once told me about a family caught during a storm in an arroyo. They drove into it accidentally, and their car went down, down, down, and they were never heard from again. For some reason, instead of giving me nightmares, this fascinated me.
One day while we were driving home from one of our trips to the mountains, it started to rain and then it poured. I fell asleep in the back seat to the clatter of raindrops pelting the roof in quick succession, as the car wound its way down the mountain. When I woke up, the car was stalled, and Dad was trying unsuccessfully to start it. “We’re in an arroyo, Abbie,” he said, a note of excitement in his voice.
Any minute, I expected us to descend into the abyss. Surprisingly, that didn’t scare me. Eventually though, Dad got the car going, and we made it home safe and sound.
I started thinking about my association with this composer after I began reading Beethoven’s Shadow by Jonathan Biss, a pianist who has played most if not all of Beethoven’s sonatas. However, after reading the book for not more than half an hour, I found it boring and decided not to finish it. Although I enjoy listening to classical music, I don’t know what I expected when this book was offered to me as a gift from Audible, but here’s the publisher’s summary from the Website.
“The American pianist Jonathan Biss is known to audiences throughout the world for his artistry, musical intelligence, and deeply felt interpretations. What has been less known until now is that Jonathan Biss writes about music in a most compelling and engaging way. For anyone who has ever enjoyed a Beethoven concert or a Beethoven recording, or one of the many films about Beethoven, this audiobook is an inspiring listening experience. For those of you who have heard Beethoven in concert or listened to a Beethoven recording, Jonathan Biss takes you behind the scenes of those performances. If your musical interests are much broader than Beethoven, or if your interests focus on the creative process, this will fully engage you.
‘On April 24th, 2007, Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 109 made me lose my mind.’ So Jonathan Biss opens this book. He goes on to describe the complex – and by no means all positive – impact of the technology of the recording process on the experience of performing and listening to music. He also describes the legacy of generations of teachers. You are there when Leon Fleisher teaches Jonathan Biss just as Artur Schnabel taught Leon Fleisher before him. You experience the growth of a talented young musician as he becomes a fully mature artist. Most compelling of all, Jonathan Biss creates an almost spiritual introduction to the making and experiencing of music. He has, in effect, invited the listener into the world of the composer and the performer.
Jonathan Biss includes an annotated audio guide to deepen the experience of anyone who enjoys listening to classical music. It is an unforgettable experience. Jonathan Biss has recently begun a nine year project of recording all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. ©2011 Jonathan Biss (P)2013 Audible, Inc.”
The only Beethoven piano composition I could play with marginal success was his Rondo in C Major. This was when I was in college. I first heard his moonlight sonata when I was in elementary school. While I was practicing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on my violin in one room at the Arizona State School for the Deaf & Blind, a girl in high school was practicing the sonata’s first movement in another. Captivated by the somber chords and melody, I often listened to her instead of practicing my own piece.
When I was a student at Sheridan College, our choir sang the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth with the Rapid City Symphony Orchestra along with other groups in Wyoming and South Dakota. It was the closest I’ll ever get to singing on stage with an orchestra. I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration, as I stood on the risers with the other singers and sang the German words to that familiar tune, accompanied by the orchestra. I’ll take that over being stuck in an arroyo any day.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver