I asked pianist Stewart Goodyear for an interview after Saturday’s Beethoven sonata maraton. His immediate response was that, since I had not sat through all 11 hours of his three-part performance, there was nothing to talk about.
That terse, shut-out-all-non-believers response is a natural extension of his determination to present the music his way — and his conviction that his way merits a waking day’s worth of a listener’s undivided attention.
This — an extreme manifestation of an artist’s inner imperative to expression — is what I wanted to probe.
The survival of any musical form is a complex ecology, a process of give and take between the people who create organised sound and those who listen to it, between composer and interpreter, between interpreter and listener and between listener and friend.
One of the people who enthusiastically sat through Goodyear’s entire marathon, a retired record label executive with an obsession for classical piano, told me he is aware of two-dozen current projects to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
Every pianist who programs even one Beethoven sonata does so because he or she is convinced they have something meaningful to say with it. And there appears to be no such thing as overload among the people who are happy to listen.
Inclusive, multi-concert surveys of Beethoven’s sonatas, string quartets, violin and cello sonatas and symphonies are commonplace. And that’s just for Beethoven. Add in Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Handel, Chopin, Mahler, Sibelius, Bruckner, Vivaldi, Shostakovich and the other composers who inspire completist devotion, and we see that there are enduring beacons of attraction from every period of Western art music.
These beacons compel individuals, ensembles, orchestras and opera companies to present the works. It’s not just about box office recognition. It is a deep, unquenchable, inner need on the part of these artists to express themselves through these composers’ ideas.
Fans of the composer and/or interpreter return the favour by buying tickets and CDs, or downloading albums, by inviting their friends to a concert and by sharing a favourite work or track online.
So many thousands of pieces of music have been written over the centuries. Relatively few have survived, but those that endure have not only survived their times, but massive cultural shifts.
Nowadays, the bulk of people who love Bach’s St Matthew Passion are not practising Christians. How many audience members at this week’s two-night blast of Mahler by the Toronto Symphony will have read Goethe?
Beethoven’s sonatas have not just survived but thrived with the advent of the modern piano — one with a sound considerably different than what the increasingly deaf composer would have remembered from this young adulthood. They survived the liberties of late-19th century pianism and imperfect reproduction on early 20th century records and piano rolls. And they are doing better than ever amidst the noise and clutter of the digital age.
As Goodyear told interviewers before his marathon, he listened to all of Beethoven’s sonatas on disc at age 7 and knew, then and there, that he would perform them all for a public one day.
He played, and people listened — both bound by love, determination, admiration and a number of other reasons peculiar to each individual. Sometimes, these bonds defy reasonable explanation. Frequently, they are made stronger in difficult conditions, such as when concerts continue to happen amist the chaos of war.
As long as these bonds endure, classical music has nothing to fear but the fearmongers.
The impulse for this little meditation came from a fantastic article on how the Internet is not dumbing us down by University of Virginia German Studies professor Chad Wellmon in The Hedgehog Review.
The long essay makes three excellent points: that people have complained since the invention of the printing press that the world is being flooded with too much reading and information; that the way Google filters and sorts information for us is based on the same principles as the good-old footnote; and a reminder that Google and other smart information sorters rely entirely on human interaction — reading and sharing — to work.
Wellmon puts it all into beautifully balanced perspective.
By extension, we know that the love of music is perpetuated in performance, listening and sharing — something we do more of now than at any other time in recorded history.