The night before his Carnegie Hall recital, the pianist Jonathan Biss was at the back of a piano store a few blocks away, sitting on a folding chair and chatting with a few dozen people he had never met but who had developed a passionate one-sided bond with him. The group — amateur musicians, lapsed pianists, casual listeners freshly in love with classical music — were among the 35,000 people worldwide who signed up for Biss’s MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), a free, internet-only course on the Beethoven piano sonatas offered jointly by the august Curtis Institute of Music and the online education company Coursera. Many would-be students dropped out along the way, but thousands completed the course, going so far as to write and submit the essays. Now some of them had shown up for a personal meeting with a new kind of highbrow celebrity, the artist as online explainer.
Half a century ago, Leonard Bernstein (once infamously dubbed the “Village Explainer” by Tom Wolfe), used TV as an educational tool, and he would certainly have thrown his arm around the Internet’s shoulder if he thought it could be useful to him. But Biss’s piano-store session was the opposite of mass dissemination: It was to classical music what a community board meeting is to politics. Biss was there representing Beethoven, rather than himself. He has written a short book on the subject, is a third of the way through a 20-year project to record all the sonatas, and the course (which is being repeated on Coursera next month) amounts to an extended fireside chat about his lifetime passion.
Many musicians attempt this kind of multimedia outreach (though often as superficial form of marketing). Anxious for the art form’s future, they sit in front of a camera or an audience (or both), talking and demonstrating and trying to eke out a tentative joke or two. But Biss is a born teacher, erudite but not pedantic, effortlessly tying together the social context, other composers’ influences and precedents, Beethoven’s personal eccentricities, and the staggering complexity that lurks in the most simple-sounding music. Even his plentiful digressions feel central. Mozart, Biss explains in an aside, walked off his job as composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg, propelled by an encouraging boot. Biss sees this humiliation as the triumph of the entrepreneurial composer. “This kick in the arse is a watershed moment in the history of music — classical music’s civil rights moment.”
In theory, that professorial spirit could produce starchy playing, stiffened by self-consciousness and too much research. There is no reason that deep insight and the ability to articulate it in words should necessarily translate into a player’s finesse. But in Biss’s case, it does.
The second volume in his projected cycle of the complete sonatas opens with the fourth sonata, Op. 7, a work that sometimes gets lumped into the composer’s early works, as if it were just throat clearing for the good stuff in the middle period. Biss manages to balance the grace that glimmers on the surface of the score with the anger that swims, shark-like, just below the waves. He taps at the repeated E flats in the opening measures just hard enough so that when the melody that ripples prettily into the upper register lands on a snarling fortissimo chords, it’s both a surprise and an organic development. “Of course!” the listener murmurs subliminally, “I knew that.”
The second movement is a study in hesitation, full of silences and shy harmonic probing. Biss plays it with the memory of the first movement’s agility and confidence still ringing in the air, like a spectacular broken-field run replayed in slow motion so that it becomes a meditative dance.
In the piano store session, Biss made it clear that Beethoven was a person of almost intolerable intensity, and that his genius lies in how he transfigured his troubles on the page. One questioner asked him to expand on the master’s use of fugue, and the answer succinct fused psychology and technique: “For an obsessive person, fugue is a very useful tool.” Another remarked on the syncopation that shudders through so much of Beethoven’s music. “Generally, anything that increases the level of urgency, he was a fan of,” Biss quipped.
Rather than try to match this exhausting buzz of emotions, Biss filters it through his own idiosyncratic mixture of earnestness and irony. How does a pianist begin to build an interpretation of a piece that simultaneously honors the composer’s intentions and is also distinctively his own? His answer: “You’re totally sincere in your love for the music and then you fail in your own distinctive way.”