Beethoven's 250th birthday—December 16—begins with a midnight celebration on Oberlin Stage Left.
This is another one of those things that wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “out of adversity comes opportunity.”
When planning for Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary began in early 2019, a committee was formed, events were dreamed up, repertoire was decided, artistic forces were gathered, dates and venues were reserved.
These ambitions resulted in some remarkable concerts at Oberlin Conservatory last winter, including the complete survey of Beethoven’s lieder and string quartets performed by students, among other projects and concerts. But since March 2020, many parties have had to be adjusted, moved to the online world. One of those will be the celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday—generally accepted as December 16—by Oberlin’s piano department.
This grand finale comes just after the stroke of midnight on Wednesday, December 16, with an Oberlin Stage Left broadcast of the Beethoven Piano Sonata Marathon that features conservatory faculty members and alumni in performances of 17 sonatas. The program, which runs roughly six hours, will be available for 10 days, after which it will move to Oberlin’s On Demand portal.
By 1795, Beethoven had established himself as a brilliant and exciting concert pianist in Viennese musical society. He wrote most of his piano works with himself in mind—a way to demonstrate his unique skill and power as a performer—at least until he succumbed to his battle with deafness. These sonatas were also very popular works that his publishers were keen to sell. As Beethoven was forced to shift away from performing, this was an excellent stream of income. During his life, the piano sonatas served equally well as laboratory experiments for compositional ideas later to be used in his quartets and symphonies. In the more than 200 years since, the sonatas as a whole have proven one of the most important collections of works in the history of music.
Piano professor Peter Takács serves as both performer and MC for the Piano Marathon broadcast and will give short introductions about each of the works. Of all the musical genres, the piano sonata is the only one that Beethoven worked on relatively consistently throughout his life. Between 1795 and 1822, he wrote 32 of them. This program will traverse the first through the 31st and includes most of the famous named ones—"Pathétique," "Waldstein," "Appassionata," "Les Adieux," and "Hammerklavier." The broadcast will also show portraits of Beethoven throughout his life, along with images of manuscripts and first editions of the sonatas.
The eight additional participating alumni span 40 years of graduates from Oberlin’s piano department. All have established unique careers—as solo, recording, and collaborative artists; teachers; and in roles as artistic directors of festivals and founders of concert series. Many have earned top prizes at piano competitions around the globe. They are Terry Eder Kaufman ’79, Spencer Myer ’00, Yury Shadrin ’05, Michael Bukhman ’05, Tian Lu ’06, Jingge Yan ’10, Dongfan Wen ’17, and Zheyu Crystal Jiang ’19.
Takács approached each of the invited alumni after it became clear that this concert would have to be an online broadcast. The original plan was, of course, to have these pianists perform all 32 sonatas for live audiences in one marathon venture in Warner Concert Hall. They pivoted and agreed to make recordings. As each of the sonatas came in from across the country, and across the Atlantic, Takács was delighted with the variety of interpretations. “Everyone plays to their personality,” he says. “Some are emotional, some are analytical. Others are cerebral.” And, as Takács proudly notes, “this an amazing legacy of Oberlin piano alumni.”
Over the course of the last year, Takács has been asked to respond to the question, “Why are we still performing so much Beethoven?” In the May 2020 Oberlin Stage Left broadcast “Does Beethoven Matter,” he and two Oberlin faculty panelists—composer Jesse Jones and historian Annemarie Sammartino—discussed Beethoven’s identity and enduring presence on concert programs and in the psyche of composers who have followed. Each panelist spoke to how Beethoven’s artistry, synonymous with 19th-century music and German culture, transcends that identity.
“He was not a god,” says Takács. “He was a working musician who also had to pay the rent and deal with society as it was. But somehow, through all of that, there’s a kind of nobility of spirit that always comes through. There’s an elevated sense of what humanity means.”
“There are universal themes in his music that are relevant to today—freedom and justice; implacable destiny versus the vulnerable human who is trying to exist in the face of these forces. These themes speak to the core of what it means to be human.”
Takács reflects that Oberlin was able to make the best of the situation for this sonata marathon program. “We made lemonade out of lemons, and turned adversity into triumph.” How Beethoven.
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