Performer’s Intent

As I hope you already know, the Iwakis and I are planning on giving a short recital this upcoming Saturday.  We’ll be playing five pieces for Violin, Cello, and Piano, and one piece for Cello and Piano.  I’d like to take a moment to discuss the main piece we will be playing.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op 97, nicknamed “Archduke”, fittingly for this recital was the last Piano Trio that he wrote and the last time he performed in public at the piano.  At the age of 41, his deafness was severely compromising his ability to play the instrument.  Louis Spohr witnessed a rehearsal for this final performance and wrote, “On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.”

I will not be attempting to recreate that pounding of keys and omission of notes.  However, it is an interesting dilemma when considering performance practice.  Generally speaking, when performing music written by another person, you are supposed to be as respectful as possible to their musical intentions.  Beethoven, probably didn’t intend this piece to be heard in the way that people did when they first heard his performance of it.  He certainly would have been aware though that if he played the keys in such an aggressive manner, you would get a harsh sound, regardless of whether he personally heard it that way or not.  He was an incredibly accomplished pianist, and had as complete control of his facilities as practically any other musician alive at the time.  I believe that his banging on the piano to such extremes wouldn’t be an accident due to poor hearing.  What it tells me, is that he performed on the piano not for the audience ears, but for his own.  Looking at it that way, him playing as loudly as possible would correspond with his increasing deafness and make sense to me.

If this theory is correct, it would drastically alter how I would approach this performance if I tried to fulfill Beethoven’s musical intentions exactly.  I still would not ‘pound on the keys’ as he did, but I would, in a sense, be released entirely from whatever Beethoven’s musical intentions were.  If I was playing solely for myself, as I believe he was, Beethoven’s  intentions would not matter anymore and I would be freed from any direction on the page.

I don’t know if that is the right path either, but I think this kind of discussion is why Beethoven is still considered one of, if not the, most influential musicians to live.  He changed what music was.  In a very real sense, his focus on individual artistry freed music from the constructs that had been built around the art form.  I personally rarely perform Beethoven for a myriad of reasons.  But when I do find myself at the piano with his music, it is always with great respect that I approach his musical intentions, whether I choose to follow them or not.

Normally I would post a recording of the music at this point.  Instead, this week I ask you to join the me and the Iwakis as we perform the first movement of the ‘Archduke’ trio this Saturday at 3pm, streaming on youtube.

-John