On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 3: Julian Jacobson

Today’s blog is a continuation of concert pianist and teacher Julian Jacobson’s series highlighting the preparations for his forthcoming Beethoven marathon, where he will perform all 32 sonatas in one day.  Here, Julian discusses why he will be performing them all from memory.

Why from memory?

Why oh why, as I sometimes ask myself when a particularly fiddly bit of detail, often in the early sonatas, proves especially recalcitrant. It isn’t even historically justified in music before Liszt, and Beethoven is known to have complained when he heard that a pianist was playing his music from memory, saying that they would never remember all his markings. I grew up at a time when you were expected to play everything, short of Stockhausen, from memory but now even major pianists, and not only older ones, sometimes place the music on the stand.

Despite all this, I never seriously considered using the scores. Even if it risks making it look a bit of a stunt – not that I have anything against stunts! – I feel I need the concentration that memory-playing forces on one in order to build the adrenalin to keep going. Otherwise I suspect it would feel, both to the audience and myself, like a more or less well practised read through, lacking a real sense of occasion.

But why play from memory anyway? Reasons given include greater spontaneity and freedom, even physical freedom since one’s back and neck are not constrained by looking at the score (much higher on a grand piano than an upright). Just look at the freedom of jazz pianists! Then, if we have the courage to remove the desk – as it were, the final safety net – we have the advantage that the piano sounds clearer, warmer and more open, including to the pianist him/herself, which incidentally helps the memory.  And, frankly, one has to spend so much time reading and analysing the detail properly – every time I prepare the cycle anew I’m horrified by the amount of detail I hadn’t noticed before; fixing a fingering so that one gets a tactile, almost choreographic memory as well as the musical one; understanding the structure so you don’t take a wrong turning. Surely it’s worth risking a few hazy moments for all the benefits and the feeling of real performance. Particularly as one can have lapses of concentration and make slips just as easily when reading from the score!

I have in the past made an exception of the Hammerklavier, the sonata which itself is an exception to all the normal rules – using the score either for the whole piece or just for the fugue. Having read that Busoni, no less, always put the score up for the fugue, I feel no compunction in doing do myself! And I might only decide on the day. Apart from that, it will be memory all the way.

Any experienced Beethoven pianist knows that the sonatas don’t make equal demands on the memory. The great middle period masterpieces are so organically constructed that they go in relatively easily: there is, for instance, no extraneous or inessential detail in the Waldstein. Some of the early sonatas contain some ill-assorted, even crude detail e.g. the messy chromatic scale passages in the stormy A minor section of the finale of op 2 no 2, and these can be murder to pin down. Fugues or fugal passages, above all in op 101, 106 and 110, require long and patient living with!

Here is my rough and ready categorisation of the sonatas in ascending order of difficulty just from the memorisation angle:

  1. Easy: op 2 no 1, 49 no 2, 79
  2. Moderately easy: op 10 nos 1 & 2, op 13 Pathétique, op 14 no 1, op 26, op 27 no 2 Moonlight, op 49 no 1
  3. Moderate: op 2 nos 2 & 3, op 7, op 10 no 3, op 14 no 2, op 22, op 27 no 1, op 28 Pastoral, op 31 nos 1, 2 Tempest and 3 Hunt, op 53 Waldstein, op 57 Appassionata, op 81a Les Adieux, op 109
  4. Difficult: op 54, op 90, op 101, op 110, op 111
  5. Excruciating: op 106 Hammerklavier.
Julian Jacobson
Image credit: Roger Harris



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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