Igor Levit: Beethoven was a ‘no bullshit’ composer. Is that it?

The German pianist, aspiring to the mantle of piano-philosopher, has written a long piece for the Guardian newspaper on what it takes to learn and play the 32 Beethoven sonatas.

Sadly, many of his pronouncement achieve an uncomfortable degree of cerebral superficiality. Example:

Which takes us straight to the ethical dimension of Beethoven’s music: if ever there was a “no bullshit” composer, it was Beethoven. His pronouncements are forceful, boiled down to their essence. As terse as his language sometimes sounds, there’s never any doubt as to the relevance of those pronouncements. Beethoven is uncomplicated in the most complex way. What he says, he means. The rigour and openness of his statements connect him in my mind with Thelonious Monk, who has this same existential urgency, this same utter avoidance of artificiality.

Read on here.

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  • Too much talking.
    He is so annoying. Not very rigorous and interesting what he has to say intellectually.
    Give that man (child?) a cookie.

  • Pierre Boulez ironized about different interpreters’ relation to Beethoven in a short, hillarious comment published by occasion of Beethoven’s 200th birthday in 1970, that was later re-published in ‘Orientations: Collected Writings’: “my Beethoven is better, more authentic, truer, more profound, more modern, more justified, more bla-bla-bla etc, than yours, …” So true.

  • Everyone has their own summation about the composers and their music. He is entitled to his. I will say this, however, that the reaction one has to the music individually can vary tremendously. For me, having not been able to hear until nearly age four, reflects on my relationship with Beethoven’s music. It is an individual phenomena. I cannot put that into words, so there isn’t a profound statement I can make about that on any intellectual level. It is a relationship with his music purely on a human level. That is how I study and interpret his music. I do know that if he could hear his music on a modern era instrument, he would love it. He broke down barriers with every new instrument brought to him as the pianos evolved, thus, his 32 sonatas evolved with them.

    • “I do know that if he could hear his music on a modern era instrument, he would love it.”

      And how exactly do you know this, Jeffrey?

      Beethoven might love his music on a 20th-century-style concert grand piano, or he might not.*

      But when people say that Beethoven/Bach/Mozart/Handel/etc. would love their music on modern instruments, what they really mean is that I love that music on modern instruments, so surely the composer would love it the same way that I do.

      – – – – – – – – – –

      *I do think it’s safe to speculate that — since we know that Beethoven liked to push whichever instruments he had at his disposal to their limits — if he had a 20th-century-style concert grand piano, Beethoven would write differently for it than he wrote for the fortepianos of his day. He’d likely still try to push a new Steinway to its limit.

      • With every change of the manufacturing of instruments, he adapted to them. His music always pushed the boundaries, and his sonatas are, in my humble opinion, very orchestral in scope. One can imagine his reaction to our instruments, if he were able to hear. It is not an assumption, not a fact. Perhaps you took my hope too literally. I should have said perhaps he might have loved it.

  • Such harsh judgments here! I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. (Anyone who mentions Beethoven and Monk in the same breath has my attention.) In the words of Victor Hugo, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

  • I don’t think there’s any superficiality to Mr. Levit’s comments, in fact I find his approach very much in sync with his artistry. In a time when classical music has essentially become a vapid spectacle dictated mostly by irrelevant externals (now, that would indeed be superficiality), it’s truly refreshing to find a thoughtful performer who is able to reflect about his art as opposed to focusing on his image and marketability. That’s precisely why Mr. Levit’s recordings truly have substance — something which is becoming more and more challenging to today’s ears, as vision has truly taken over our very capacity to think and listen. And it is vision, in its very essence, that remains the very embodiment of superficiality.

  • Oh, I think there’s plenty of BS in Wellington’s Victory and a few other works. On balance, I think Beethoven’s least BS works are the string quartets.

  • Yes–what he is quoted here as saying about Beethoven fits. A painter friend once said of bad paintings that they contained “too much and-so-on.” Beethoven never makes me think he’s lapsing into ‘and-so-on’.

    • Bullshit in classical music is for instance, when musicians like Igor Levit feed the social media circle jerks with their hot air pocket philosophies, leading the circle jerking exercises.
      It’s a new phenomenon, born with the intrinsic superficiality of twitter.

    • I was just wondering what Igor Levit means with BS in classical music, why Beethoven was a “no BS” composer.

      Some comments express an opinion about BS and musicians, and it seems that some people think that lighter, entertaining music is BS (Wellington’s victory has been mentioned in another comment). I don’t think so – entertainment music of good quality is definitely not BS.

    • Beethoven was fully capable of some bullshit (as I would use the term) and that’s leaving Wellington’s Victory aside for the moment.

      Some particulars:

      Once he gained fame he made something of a cottage industry in digging through his early works and attaching late opus numbers to them or otherwise implying they were new. The Piano Concerto “No. 2” is one example, but there are also the violin Romances, the op. 49 Piano Sonatas, the op. 71 Sextet, and the list goes on. Either the publishers or the customers or both were being deceived. The music was really his but opus numbers presumably convey something meaningful. At least he kept some musicologists employed, I suppose.

      We went after the easy money with those Irish and Scottish folk song arrangements. Admittedly, Haydn and Hummel also found it hard to resist.

      With a few deliberate and very modest tweaks he felt OK aabout passing off Franz Klein’s arrangement (already published) as his own of the op. 8 string trio Serenade as the Viola and Piano Notturno, op. 42. Violists have been grateful for the deception as it gave them a “real” work by Beethoven for their repertoire, unsullied by being arranged by a nobody. Except it was.

      • To begin with, works which were published with another opus number had not been published before. Also, B reworked the music here & there to bring it up to his current standards. Then, given that composers at the time could only get financial rewards for their work through selling it for a lump sum to a publisher (there did not exist a royalty system), or getting tipped through dedicating a work to some wealthy music lover, or organising his own concerts (hiring the venue and other musicians, selling the tickets, and taking the risk of the undertaking). Once published, a composer lost all control over the work. So, the financial basis of composers was fragile, unless they were employed by court or church. B had the luck to have been supported by some circles within Viennese nobility who had been shocked at the unexpected sudden death of the new star at the musical firnament: Mozart, and did not want to have such thing repeated. But regular money inflations, military invasions, economic insecurities etc. made even Beethoven’s pension by three noblemen an insecure source of income. We know that he was quite paranoid about money, due to his fully realizing the fragility of his position, in spite of his fame (again, Mozart as a warning). So, it is understandable he occasionally threw-out some more commercial music for the market. No reason for complaints.

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