The Story in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31

August 20, 2021 Updated: August 20, 2021

Artsy types are not like other people. I’m allowed to say this because I’m one of them, or was for many years before I gave up performing for writing (though to be honest, writing still counts as artsy, just in a subtler way). We’re dreamy and passionate, prone to being swept away by our art, often accused of having our heads in the clouds, and our instructors are no exception. You’ll get a front row seat to what it’s like to attend a class focusing on honing an artist’s performance with “Piano Talks’ ” second episode, which might take you back to band or choir if you were a music geek like me.

“Master Class with Victor Rosenbaum,” definitely took me back to my years of tutelage under Mrs. Baker, the local piano teacher. Rosenbaum’s humming along to the music in particular instilled a sense of déjà vu, though his overall style was much more in line with my high school choir teacher, who was truly passionate and driven to instill a love of music in her pupils. You may think to yourself as you watch this, “Is this how music professors actually behave in class?” Yes. Yes it is. It is also how acting and dance instructors behave, particularly the older ones who have a tremendous amount of knowledge to instill in their students and limited time left to do it. Your next thought might be, “Doesn’t that get annoying?” No. No it doesn’t. Because when you’re studying a performative art you want to give the best performance possible, and the whole point of a master class, emphasis on master, is to learn from the best. You are therefore wise to leave your ego at the door.

As this series is about Ludwig von Beethoven, the entire hour of the episode is devoted to a single piece of Beethoven’s music; one of his late sonatas, “Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major.” The sonata’s running time is about 20 minutes total, split between three movements and two pianists. The first pianist, Hrant Bagrazyan, tackles the Moderato and Allegro, and while it’s fascinating to watch his fingers fly across the keys with such assurance, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat blasé about the piece overall. His technique was excellent, his playing confident, but it just didn’t sound like Beethoven. I didn’t know what bothered me about it, the piece just felt off.

Enter the master to pinpoint exactly what I’d been feeling while listening to Bagrazyan play. Though he has a strong command of the piece, Rosenbaum’s main critique was that his playing didn’t convey the underlying story. That’s what I missed as I watched, wondering how Bagrazyan managed to memorize both movements when they seemed so disjointed, with no through-line, no overarching plot to latch onto. It sounded like a monologue that bounced from point A to point F to point R before swinging back around to point B, as if rambling on was its only objective. It didn’t tell a story.

Storytelling is why artists like Beethoven and other composers stand the test of time. There is a very specific story to “Moonlight Sonata,” Debussey’s “Clair de Lune,” Satie’s “Gymnopedie,” or any of Chopin’s nocturnes. All good art tells a story using its own medium, something our popular culture has forgotten in the name of ticking off representation boxes on a list. It no longer matters if the pilot episode for your new series is any good, just whether it has enough minority and LGBTQ+ representation. Obviously minority and LGBTQ+ characters can be compelling, but when the entire point of your series is to shove them into the script regardless of whether they make the story better or advance the plot, then you don’t really understand the purpose of performative art.

Master Class with Victor Rosenbaum | Piano Talks [Full Episode]

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Once Rosenbaum began instructing, it became clear to me that that’s what Bragazyan’s playing sounded like—ticking off a list of boxes rather than telling the story of the piece. Right notes? Check. Right tempo? Check. Right key? Check. It was all fine, it was just kind of… there. I feel terrible picking on Bagrazyan, particularly when his performance gives Rosenbaum so much to work with and discuss. If he played the sonata perfectly with no room for improvement, the class would have been over well before the hour was up.

Instead, because of Bagrazyan’s perfectly fine yet underwhelming interpretation, he gives Rosenbaum a chance to display why he’s the one teaching the class. Rosenbaum dives into the piece, discussing phrasing, the history of it, the way specific passages are recalled throughout the movements like a thread knitting the sonata together as more than just a series of notes. Rosenbaum understands the story in the way Beethoven intended to convey it, the history behind the piece, and when Bagrazyan is given a chance to replay portions of the sonata under the master’s instruction, it sounds like an entirely different work. This is the purpose of a performer having a conductor, choreographer, or director to critique and advise. An expert set of outside eyes and ears will nearly always make a performance better.

Hyejin Joo completes the sonata with the final movement, the Adagio, though this movement was split in two in the original publication to include a Fuga. Whether she benefited from hearing Rosenbaum’s critique of Bagrazyan or had a better understanding of the piece in the first place is anybody’s guess, but from the beginning notes she tells the story of the movement in a much clearer way. She obviously understands the overall plot of at least the Adagio and conveys it more delicately. In a class like this, there are definitely benefits to not being the first one up on stage.

Rosenbaum takes less time and gives less hands-on instruction to Joo as a result, doing more discussing with her as she plays than demonstrating for her what he means as he did with the first two movements. He digs into the feeling of the piece, tying it together with the Moderato and Allegro for the viewer, for whom the overall sonata has been split. He also references the final portion of the piece that is technically a fugue, even if it’s no longer labeled as such. Altogether it’s a wonderful hour of learning the way master musicians approach their work, pulling in their knowledge of various texts beyond what is simply on the printed page.

You might look at this episode and think there’s no point in sitting through a music master class if you’re not someone who happens to be musically inclined, but you’d be wrong. While “Master Class with Victor Rosenbaum” is focused on a Beethoven sonata, it illustrates why certain works of music, theater, dance, or literature endure, and why some artists stand out above others. In an era where artists increasingly need to have a huge Instagram following—or a father in the White House—rather than any actual talent to make it big, it’s vital to watch and share a program like “Piano Talks” to illustrate why Beethoven will live on long after the likes of Ariana Grande and Post Malone (at least, I hope so—God how I hope so). Truly great art endures because of the stories it tells, and we must start insisting on better stories from our popular culture.

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Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Meredith Carroll
Meredith Carroll