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Beethoven Journal: In Practice

(The following journal charts my preparation for concert performances of the famous first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It gives you a fly-on-the-wall view of the concert pianist's process of readying a work for public performance. It was originally written in 1988.)

NOVEMBER 5, 1987

    Ground-breaking day. With the first concert two months away, it's time to begin. It has been eleven years since I first performed the "Moonlight," when I was fourteen. The paper cover of the sheet music has fallen off -- evidently I was too cheap or insufficiently ambitious to buy the complete book of thirty-two sonatas at the time.

    As is my habit, I simply run through the composition once or twice to remind myself of its features. The run-through goes well, and I'm satisfied to let my unconscious work on it for a two-week incubation period while I tackle more immediate commitments -- a performance of Last Works, a program of the final compositions of Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Liszt, and Scriabin.


    The Last Works program has now been laid to rest, and I can give more attention to the Beethoven. For the next week and a half, my task is research and analysis. I begin by making a trip to the the Vermont College and University of Vermont libraries to do biographical and historical research. In the case of this sonata, an important point of investigation is the title. I make a fruitful discovery: although Beethoven of course did not call the work the "Moonlight Sonata" (that was a critic's nickname for it) he did call it "Sonata quasi una fantasia" -- a sonata, but almost a fantasy. For the first time it dawns on me how much this sonata departs from the classical form.

    The "Moonlight" Sonata was historically one of the very first adventures in the new spirit we call Romanticism. Beethoven's title reflects his sense that the work was on a threshold: it was to be both classical ("sonata") and romantic ("fantasia"). Writing in 1801, he was feeling the winds of change, while the elderly Haydn was still cranking out classical string quartets.

    Beethoven replaced the classical sonata's fast-slow-fast movement scheme with an original, essentially Romantic conception. The slow movement is now first, starting an expanded sweep from very slow to moderate (the wispy, medium-paced Allegretto) to very fast (the climactic, precipitous Presto). The entire piece is one large gesture,f rom the first note to the last, breaking from the classical tradition of independently weighted, balanced parts.

    Yet the fantasy aspects of the progression from movement to movement are brilliantly balanced by a doggedly classical approach within each movement. And nowhere is the classical restraint more evident than in the first movement, the Adagio, which is presumed to be so romantic and moonlit!

    The tension between the forward pull of Beethoven's vision and the solidity of the classical status quo will be central to my interpretation.


    In the third phase I run through the piece every day, trying to develop a sense of continuity and cohesion, a feel for the pace and extent of events.


    Now to the detail work, my favorite part. I work my way slowly, over the course of several days, from the beginning to the end of the piece. A single page can take an hour or two to practice; I feel like biologist patiently examining a slide under a microscope. I make countless decisions on phrasing, articulation, fingering, pedaling, and speed. Each decision is governed by my overall interpretation of the work, which has begun to gel over the last three weeks.

    I have resolved that in my performance the romanticism will be emphasized by the contrast between the movements. The first movement, therefore, will be extremely slow and soft; the last, extremely fast and loud. Within each movement, though, I will adopt a classical interpretation, emphasizing the unity created by motivic development. (Motivic development is the process by which the ideas presented at the outset are continually transformed, thereby permeating and unifying the entire piece.)

    In the first movement, the classical ethic of simplicity in thematic material and texture is borne out beautifully in the construction of the initial melody. Beethoven has built a theme on a single note, the G-sharp; this is his core idea. The note is simply repeated six times, proceeds to its upper neighbor A, then returns. On its return, the G-sharp is reharmonized not with the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with a reflective, luminous E major.

    This theme demands a fair amount of practice. The most obvious difficulty is that the melody is to be played entirely with the right hand's pinky, as the lower fingers are busy arpeggiating various harmonies. For the melody to project, the heavier and stronger thumb, index, and middle fingers must be trained to be softer, and the pinky to be louder. I often practice tricky balance passages with a two-part technique: first I play forte throughout to make me aware of the tactile sensation of all the fingers on each of their respective keys, then I proceed to reduce in volume the less important notes.

    The single, simple G-sharp of the melody is foreshadowed in the opening measures and remembered at the close of the movement, where the repeated G-sharps dive down into the bass regions, to be played by the thumb of the left hand. The G-sharps weave a unifying web throughout the movement, and I must work hard to make their varied entrances emerge from the larger texture.

    During this phase, I must be able to concentrate without being interrupted. Like most musicians, though, it's rare to find even two hours of completely unbroken time at the piano. All I can do is close the windows and praise God for the call-screening feature on my answering machine.


    The fifth stage of preparation deals with technical matters. My interpretation demands I keep the pulse steady -- a difficult task -- throughout the first movement. Dreamy fluctuations would distract from the seamless, classical unity I want to project. Matters are made worse by the slow tempo: it's easier to lose concentration at extremely low speed.

    Fortunately, the musician has two allies in the quest for steadiness -- the tape recorder and the quartz metronome. Neither works by giving you an immaculate pulse you can follow (by the time you hear the metronome's click you are already woefully behind the beat) but they let you know when you are speeding up or slowing down unconsciously. In this case, tape playbacks and metronome work indicate that I rush whenever the left hand activity increases. Over the next three days I take corrective measures.


    For the next two weeks I take a back-and-forth approach, oscillating between straight run-throughs and further detail work.

    Sometimes this tactic serves as a catalyst, freeing new interpretative ideas from my unconscious. It suddenly occurs to me that I have not yet thought about where I'm going to put the climax of the first movement.

    On reflection, I resolve that it occurs precisely at the half-way point of the movement, in the mysterious and beautiful extended, spider-like arpeggiation of a diminshed-seventh chord over a sustained G-sharp (what else?) in the bass. I underline the climax in several ways -- by making it the loudest moment in the movement, by making it the slowest, and by employing during this passage the longest pedal-length in the movement, increasing the sonority.


    One week before the first concert! A few jitters? This is a good time to do memory work -- something fairly mindless.

    Memorizing should not present any major problems if you see a piece not as thousands of individual notes but in larger patterns and structures. I often find the piece is memorized even before I close the book and test myself.

    In the "Moonlight" I face a small memory problem with two identical chords in the Adagio. In the first half the chord leads off one way; in the second half, another way. I look carefully at the goals of these two parallel phrases. In the first case, it turns out the "pivot chord" moves toward G-sharp to set up the climax; in the second, it moves towards C-sharp, the home key, for a satisfying close. Once I realize the difference, it's easy to keep the two distinct in my mind.


    With a few days left, I revert to complete run-throughs. I don't want to make major changes at this point. The hard work is already over; I sand down the inevitable rough edges as much as possible.

DECEMBER 31, 5 p.m.

    Concert day. I go to the hall and play a bit of the beginning and end of each movement; given enough time, I run through the entire program once. Each hall and piano has its own idiosyncracies. In Groton, I discover the church's piano's soft pedal doesn't work properly; so much for the idea of using it rhoughout the entirety of the first movement. At the last moment I have to run to the parsonage for some oil to stop the pedals and chair from squeaking.

    In Stowe and Burlington I will perform in Congregational churches with fine acoustics that gently amplify the sound without distorting the tone. Both pianos have cranky notes here and there, though, and whole sections of the piano that are too loud or too weak, and I will have to compensate for these quirks while I'm performing.

    In Montpelier, I will play a piano in an acoustically "dry" art gallery, and so will have to use more damper pedal to add resonance. Well, this is why it's important to show up early, to make these last-minute adjustments in response to the unique situation each piano presents, all part and parcel of the life of a concert pianist.

    Often I have to correct an out-of-tune note that the tuner has missed. PIano tuning is extremely difficult, consisting half of science and half of mysticism. Although I don't have the experience to tune a piano fully, I do bring my tuning hammer to wrench an errant note or two back into tune.

    But time is running out. The hosts urge me to put my tuning equipment away. There is only half an hour to concert time; people are already coming in.

DECEMBER 31, 8 p.m.

    So here we are. The audience, a large one tonight, rustles about. I enter, walking very quickly. Making a short bow, I turn directly to the piano and sit. Silence descends.

    A strange image occurs to me; I am the sky, the audience is the earth, and my music a tornado. I am commanded to exhale wildly all my fastidious preparation, funnelling all those hours of pent-up thought into one might cylindrical gust of sound.

Re-reading the essay now almost ten years later, I doubt I would today perform the "Moonlight" using the same interpretation, especially in the first movement. Still, I think there are some interesting thoughts here. I will probably be recording this sonata later this year (1997), and it will be interesting to see how it comes out.

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)