On preparing a Beethoven marathon Part 9: Julian Jacobson

In part nine of concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson’s series of articles chronicling his Beethoven marathon preparations, he muses on many aspects which must be taken into consideration when gearing-up for such an event.

You can find out more about Julian’s work and all the details for his marathon performance on November 12th in London, here.

      Two Weeks To Go!

And so the day approaches. Like all big events in life, it seems a long way off in the future and suddenly it’s upon us. Too late to turn back even if I wanted to! And I’m looking forward to my repeat performance in Uruguay six days later on my actual 75th birthday: they’re taking me out for a big celebration afterwards, hope I’m up to it. And then staying on for a few days of pure holiday!

People often ask me how I prepare for the marathon. I certainly never did a complete run: it’s too tiring and one can only really get through it in real time and with a live audience participating in the experience. I reckoned that if I did a run through and it went well it would give me a false sense of security, and if it didn’t go well I would be unduly discouraged! The first time I did it (2003) I did groups of six or eight: now the most I do is three or four consecutive sonatas.

A few months ago I was working up sonatas I hadn’t played for a while, more or less at random. However, as the marathon approaches I find it more useful just to go through the whole cycle in strict order, which has been taking me about a week. Inevitably some need more work than others but absolutely none of them can be taken for granted. I’m basing my text on the new Bärenreiter edition and there are many changes of detail and sometimes even notes since I last did the cycle. I also find many instances where I no longer like how I used to play them: but a changed interpretation needs settling in the hands and the memory, and there’s a limit to how much “new” playing one can absorb when so many pieces are involved. Still, at no point did I wish to simply repeat the performances that I’ve given in the past and on the whole I think I’m managing that, or so it seems to me! Over the last couple of years I’ve performed most of the sonatas in different concerts. A CD should be coming out, just in time: Moonlight, Tempest and Waldstein with a bonus Bagatelle encore.

Certainly one has to look after one’s health and fitness, all the more so in the current situation and, I suppose, with regard to my age though I don’t really feel much older than when I last did it in 2013. I’ve had all my jabs and got Covid out of the way this summer. The number of concerts I’ve cancelled through illness over a long performing life can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand (one of them was through a scorching burn on a finger from an accident while making crème brûlée – for a while it looked as if I might lose the finger). A few hand issues but nothing unmanageable and I try to be very aware of what’s going on. So I feel reasonably confident of not going down with something at the last moment!

As the day approaches there are many other matters to deal with and stop me obsessing too much about the pieces and the playing. Even with excellent admin help from Polyphony Arts and other assistance, I’m having to think about the piano itself (still not quite clear), the live-streaming, last-minute promotion and invitations, what I’ll wear, how I’m arranging my teaching so that my mind is as uncluttered as possible in the last few days, and, finally, preparing to go to Uruguay two days later for my repeat performance on the 18th – can’t leave everything till the day before I fly! But the unassailable grandeur of the sonatas and the thrill, as well as the challenge, of playing every note of them puts all such concerns in their rightful place.



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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