I heard a while ago about the online lecture on Beethoven’s piano sonatas that Curtis Institute of Music provides via Coursera. The first time I heard about it, I was too busy to listen to it, the second time, the lecture was unavailable, and finally, I am ready and the lecture is up and going! Yay!
The lecturer is Jonathan Bliss, and I remember him from the BBC piano master class with Daniel Barenboim a few years ago. Lang Lang was one student, Jonathan Bliss was another, and I thought then that Bliss was quite impressive. Anyway, Bliss is now on piano faculty at Curtis, and he delivers lectures on Beethoven piano sonatas based on his interpretations of them as a performer.
There are 5 lectures, and as of today, I went through only 1.5 lectures. And I am quite blown away. What’s so good about his lectures is not necessarily Bliss’s piano skills (in fact, so far, he rarely touched the piano keys!) but his way of explaining the meaning of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Even a random dude on the street knows that Beethoven is great. But why is he great? And why particularly his piano music, not his symphonies or chamber music? These are difficult questions, and I think Bliss does a fabulous job at discussing these questions with people who have little to no background in music.
This is easier said than done. To give full credit to Bliss, I want to discuss for a point of comparison another lecture that I recently listened. My Korean mom recommended me a TV lecture series on western philosophy, and I listened to one on Immanuel Kant. Before the lecture began, I was very curious and nervous at the same time. I was curious about how the philosophy professor would address questions on Kant that are similar to the questions that Bliss raises about Beethoven: we all know that Kant is one of the greatest philosophers. But why? And I was nervous, because I felt that the challenges given to the philosophy professor were harder than the one given to Bliss. Reading Kant’s work is difficult. Very. Unless you’re a serious philosophy student, reading his Critique of Pure Reason is torturous. By contrast, listening to Beethoven’s piano music is more accessible to the general public. You can listen through a whole sonata, whether you like it or not, or regardless of how much you appreciate it. So, I was very curious about how this philosophy professor would address the thorny question on the importance of studying Kant.
The philosophy professor failed miserably. And failed by not even raising this question at all! I was a serious philosophy student at one time. I understood 99% of what he was talking about, but I resented almost every minute of his lecture. Upon the beginning of the lecture, the professor flew right into the central question of Kant’s philosophy: “how do we know?” And he went straight to discuss Kant’s answer to this question. Meanwhile, I was screaming, “So what? who cares?”
I have no doubt that the Korean philosopher was genuinely interested in delivering his knowledge of Kant to the general public and trying to do his best. But what he was missing is that most people NEVER sit down and ask, “how do we know?” We have a real life going on. Most of us feel that how much this month’s electricity bill runs is a more important question than how we know. Nevertheless, the philosophy professor totally ignores real people’s real concerns, forces us to forget who we are and where we are, and puts us in Kant’s position, as if we, people living in 2014, directly share the concerns and interests of a guy who lived in an obscure corner of Europe 300 years ago. We can never understand Kant’s greatness, if we just read his Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, in Critique of Pure Reason, he gives a great answer to the question “how do we know?” But the greatness of his answer is determined within the context of his time. We in 2014 don’t think the question is that important. However, there were certain social, political, intellectual conditions in Kant’s time which made the question “how do we know?” a very important one. Again, he did not wake up one day and asked out of blue, “how do we know?” It was an urgent, pressing question of his time that many people tried to answer. If you want to understand Kant, therefore, you should start by understanding the context in which the informing question of Kant’s philosophy takes meaning. Kant was a great thinker, because, when most people thought that God thrusts knowledge into our mind or the objective world makes indelible marks on our perception, he thought that we create knowledge ourselves due to the strength of pure reason.
The philosophy professor just sucked at contextualizing Kant. He was just so busy explaining what Kant says in his book. But seriously, who cares? I bet nobody listening to his lecture understood how Kant broke huge grounds.
And this is precisely where Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures shine with brilliance. He does a very good job at contextualizing Beethoven. We’re all busy with concerns of our everyday life, big and small, but while we listen to him, he invites us to time travel to Beethoven’s age and put Beethoven in conversation with his immediate predecessors, such as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. And he explains how Beethoven pushed conventional rules of piano music and tested the limits of the piano instrument. Beethoven piano sonatas are great, not only because they have so many emotions but because they are so structurally diverse and refuse to be bound by rules. And that’s where we see Beethoven’s revolutionary spirit, a will for the unknown, and indefatigable refusal to compromise. And it is in his piano sonatas that his revolutionary spirit finds the clearest expression.
I highly recommend Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures. They are accessible here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/beethoven-piano-sonatas. And the link to the philosophy lecture? You don’t need it.