When I Discovered Beethoven

I was nine years old when I began my career as a pianist. For the first two months, I was perfectly satisfied with Faber’s Piano Adventures and played “The Bell Tower” on whichever piano happened to be in my immediate vicinity. That changed on the day my dear mother returned from the little Leander Public Library with a CD she thought I might enjoy. Curious, I plugged in the boombox, inserted the disc, and sprawled out on the living floor with my ear to the speaker as the first deep, dark notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas began to play.

And right there, all my devotion to “The Bell Tower” went out the window. By the time the magically wild notes of Presto agitato rolled around on Track 3, I had become hooked on Beethoven.

As I write, I am listening to the same exhilarating recording that first met my ears that day in the fall of 2002: Rudolf Serkin’s 1963 performance of the “Moonlight” Sonata. I’d like to imagine that I was the first one ever to hear and savor this piece of music—I was mildly peeved when I began to find it on every cheap “classical hits” compilation, evidence that the masses had already long been fawning over it. No matter. Everyone seemed to ignore Presto agitato, and as that was my favorite movement of the work, I could still happily claim some degree of individuality in my appreciation for the No. 14.

Driven by my enthrallment with Presto agitato, I sought to obtain a copy of the sheet music. I had to find out what it looked like and how to play it. Surely those must be thirty-second notes—maybe even sixty-fourths! Such mind-boggling possibilities captivated my imagination. I called a music store in downtown Austin for a quote on the first volume of Beethoven sonatas. $14.95, quoth they, and from that day on $14.95 was what I desired to make. I would somehow land a copy in my possession.

I spent the next two Saturday afternoons trudging around the neighborhood knocking on doors and pushing the Craftsman lawnmower across my neighbors’ front yards. Eventually I finally had accumulated enough to buy the first volume of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The day was almost here.

The following Thursday, we drove down to a little music shop off of 29th and Guadalupe, where I proudly laid the cash out on the counter. The pony-tailed man handed me that sleek new volume, and I walked out of the store on air. I finally had Sonatas No. 1-15 in my clutches.

From then on, I fell in love with the sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. I would decipher them and try my very best to play them all the way through without stopping, just like the way Rudolf Serkin did on the CD. In the fashion of a true pianist, I would adopt a sort of brooding angst if ever I was interrupted to set the table or take the trash out. I plowed through Presto agitato over and over again, once bringing the heavily-marked score to my teacher and promising that with just a little practice I would have it completely mastered! (I don’t think she was convinced, but at least she showed me how to correctly play the intro to the Pathetique.) I would call KMFA on Wednesday Request Nights and ask for my favorite sonatas, then tape them when they were broadcasted. I even called in imitating an old lady after they declined my first two requests for the Hammerklavier (I thought they’d be convinced this time around)!

And I will never lose the magic of those sonatas, and I cannot forget how I felt and what I thought and what I heard when I first explored them. Eleven years later, I pick up those two volumes—now heavily marked, well-tattered, and the first one spiral-bound after the binding disintegrated—and still associate with those notes a rich plethora of images and memories from my first two years of piano. As I listen to Serkin play the Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, the reverberant clarity still gives me a thrill; as I listen to the Waldstein, I still remember the way its Rondo touched my soul; when the Andante of the No. 13 results from my fingers’ commands, I still remember the afternoon I first ventured into its peaceful beauty.

My repertoire has expanded over the course of my piano career. I have encountered the polonaises of Chopin, the fantasias of Liszt, the etudes-tableaux of Rachmaninoff, the trios of Hummel, the Mouvements perpetuels of Poulenc, and the works of many other composers. But as much as I dearly love the technical and aesthetic values of these pieces (especially Rachmaninoff), and as much time as I have spent learning and appreciating them, the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven are my first musical love. His sonatas are the pieces with which I am most immediately comfortable and familiar. His gentle melodies and stormy ferocities, defying both cheery classicalism and dreamy romanticism, captivate my heart and fuel my passion for the inexhaustible beauty of the piano. His music can be both beautifully tender and passionately intense, quite often at the same time.

It has been a rich eleven years exploring the thirty-two sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. I can’t guarantee that I can play all of them all the way through without stopping, but the number is certainly far greater than it was in 2002. The tattered Dover editions are still with me, this time gracing a keyboard in my college living quarters instead of the Steinway I dearly miss back home. Beethoven’s music remains an integral centerpiece of my piano practice and enjoyment, just as it has been since I was nine. The thirty-two sonatas have truly been a vital part of my life. And with every measure, bar, and movement, their beauty and power have given me a greater appreciation of music, dedication, and musicianship along the way.

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