Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

Jonathan Biss, Curtis Institute of Music

A series of lectures on one of the greatest bodies of music ever composed, from the point of view of a performer. Each lecture will explore a different facet of the music; all will attempt to locate the source of the tremendous psychological power of Beethoven’s music.

Our relationship to Beethoven is a deep and paradoxical one. For many musicians, he represents a kind of holy grail: His music has an intensity, rigor, and profundity which keep us in its thrall, and it is perhaps unequalled in the interpretive, technical, and even spiritual challenges it poses to performers. At the same time, Beethoven’s music is casually familiar to millions of people who do not attend concerts or consider themselves musically inclined. Two hundred years after his death, he is everywhere in the culture, yet still represents its summit.

This course takes an inside-out look at the 32 piano sonatas from the point of view of a performer. Each lecture will focus on one sonata and an aspect of Beethoven’s music exemplified by it. (These might include: the relationship between Beethoven the pianist and Beethoven the composer; the critical role improvisation plays in his highly structured music; his mixing of extremely refined music with rougher elements; and the often surprising ways in which the events of his life influenced his compositional process and the character of the music he was writing.) The course will feature some analysis and historical background, but its perspective is that of a player, not a musicologist. Its main aim is to explore and demystify the work of the performer, even while embracing the eternal mystery of Beethoven’s music itself.

Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas is scheduled to reopen in January 2015, with new material added in Spring 2015. Join the watchlist to be notified as soon as registration begins.

This season's Curtis courses are sponsored by Linda Richardson in loving memory of her husband, Dr. Paul Richardson.


Week One: How Things Were
Week Two: The First 13 Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7
Week Three: New Paths Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26 Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, Op. 27, No. 1 (“Sonata quasi una fantasia”) Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”) Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 (“Pastoral”)
Week Four: Crisis Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1 Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78  Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a (“Les adieux” or "Lebewohl") Fantasy, Op. 77
Week Five: Towards Infinity Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1

Recommended Background

It is not necessary to have studied an instrument to take this course, or to have any knowledge of music theory. While these may enhance your experience of the course, it is designed for students of all backgrounds with a desire to learn more about Beethoven and his world.

Suggested Readings

There are no pre-requisites for this course. For those who would like to explore the subject from a different perspective, though, there are several terrific studies of Beethoven:

  • [Alexander] Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in two extensive volumes, still, after well over a century, sets the standard for all Beethoven biographies. It is thorough and sober-minded without being dry. It is not the work of a musician, but as a look at the man’s life, it is unmatched. Edited by Elliot Forbes, it is available from the Princeton University Press.
  • Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life, published in 2005 by Norton, is very different and no less valuable. Far less exhaustive on Beethoven’s biography than Thayer, Lockwood focuses on Beethoven’s musical development, of which he gives a beautiful account – scholarly, but definitely readable by a non-musician.
  • Beethoven’s own letters are extremely revealing, and often very touching. Beethoven’s mix of pride, stubbornness, and generosity is constantly on display, just as it is in the music. Dover has a collection of 457 of the letters, which touch on matters both mundane (fees for compositions; details of publications) and excruciating (his deafness; his tragic relationship with his nephew).
  • On a more musicological level, I cannot recommend Charles Rosen’s works highly enough. Those without any musical background will probably find them very thorny. But for anyone who has studied music, both The Classical Style and Sonata Forms (Norton, again) are works of art. The former has a chapter devoted to Beethoven, but really, every word of both books manages to explain how the music of the period works – not merely in an academic manner, but in a way that comes as close to explaining the psychological power of this music as one can in words. Again, not essential as background for the course, but enthusiastically recommended for anyone who wants to go deeper into these pieces.

Of course, the best way to explore Beethoven’s piano sonatas is to listen to them. There are countless great recordings of these works; the complete cycles that I grew up with are those of Artur Schnabel (EMI) and Richard Goode (Nonesuch). They are products of two very different eras, and therefore they collectively form a document of the relationship great musicians have had with Beethoven over the past 100 years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have written about Beethoven previously, on my website and as a Kindle Single. These writings are not specifically connected to the content of the course; they are more about my own personal relationship with Beethoven and his psychological effect on me, as a performer. 

I am also in the midst of recording the sonatas; the three volumes already released are available from Onyx Classics.


Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment.

The Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation supports Curtis's lifelong learning initiatives.

  • 13 March 2014, 5 weeks
  • 3 September 2013, 5 weeks
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