Thursday, September 12, 2013

Beethoven and Jonathan Biss

I'm really enjoying the latest Coursera class that I'm taking: Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.

This course takes an inside-out look at the 32 piano sonatas from the point of view of a performer. Each lecture will focus on one sonata and an aspect of Beethoven’s music exemplified by it. (These might include: the relationship between Beethoven the pianist and Beethoven the composer; the critical role improvisation plays in his highly structured music; his mixing of extremely refined music with rougher elements; and the often surprising ways in which the events of his life influenced his compositional process and the character of the music he was writing.) The course will feature some analysis and historical background, but its perspective is that of a player, not a musicologist. Its main aim is to explore and demystify the work of the performer, even while embracing the eternal mystery of Beethoven’s music itself.

The course is led by Jonathan Biss, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (and who was born in Bloomington Indiana, which is where my parents lived when I was born).

So far, I've finished the first two weeks of lectures:

  • In week 1, Biss provides a quick overview of 150 years of the development of music, from Bach to Mozart to Haydn to Beethoven, helping us understand Beethoven's place in music history and why that is relevant to both studying and listening to Beethoven's compositions. Biss also gives us just enough music theory so that we can comprehend what a sonata is, how it differs from other forms, and what that means for the music of a sonata.
  • In week 2, Biss leads us deeply into Beethoven's Piano Sonata Number 4, Opus 7, the work that Biss chose to represent the early period of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Alternating between describing the work and playing selections from it, Biss deconstructs and analyzes the sonata in detail.

Biss is just a delightful speaker. He is engaging and clear, and best of all his tremendous love for and respect of the music shines through, and is just so infectious. When you listen to Biss describe how a piece of music affects him, and why it affects him, you instantly grasp what he's talking about.

The course materials on Coursera include a class wiki, with lots of background material and pointers to further resources for study.

I'm not a professional musician, and never really studied music except at the most elementary level, but I've always enjoyed music, and I know that studying music helps me to appreciate it as a listener.

So I'm really looking forward to more opportunities to learn from Jonathan Biss, and to a greater appreciation and enjoyment of music.

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