The University of Auckland music historian traces her life according to Beethoven.
Emperor Piano Concerto No. 5
(composed in 1810)
I study and analyse music, so I can tell you a lot about what it does and how it works. But there's still the X-factor that draws us in, even if you can't quite put your finger on it. My parents were very keen on classical music and, as a child, this piece fascinated me. It was Beethoven's last piano concerto, when his works were very explorative, so it's quite experimental and cutting-edge. It's very evocative music – the idea of something slightly out of reach or a little bit veiled. Melancholy is a good word. We think of Beethoven as a composer, but when he first arrived in Vienna, he was known as a virtuoso pianist. That's what makes for the excitement in his music, because he's pushing this piece of hardware right to the limits of what it can do, both expressively and as an instrument.
(composed in 1806)
My grandfather, who was British, was a great fan of classical music and concerts were part of his social life – an event. He'd dress up nicely in a suit. Many years ago, we saw the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic play Beethoven's Violin Concerto with [English classical violinist] Tasmin Little, and it always makes me think of him. He died in 2016, at the age of 99.
The Complete Piano Sonatas on Period Instruments
Malcolm Bilson, a renowned fortepiano specialist, was Professor of Music at Cornell University [in New York] when I did my PhD there in the late 90s. He and six of his students released this boxed set, playing each sonata on instruments from the time. Bilson himself had a very idiosyncratic style. His whole take on playing is that the instruments themselves speak. Each one is an individual, because they're not mass-produced. Then the performer speaks through the music by adding their own interpretation.
String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor
(composed in 1824)
Beethoven was deaf when he wrote this very radical work, right at the end of his life – seven movements full of all sorts of different music and ideas. Nowadays, metaphors of greatness are used to describe it but at the time people just thought he was mad. In the 1820s, people didn't go to concerts to listen silently in a darkened auditorium; they went to talk to their friends and socialise. Shocking, isn't it! If they liked a movement, they would call "encore" and have it repeated. This quartet is a lengthy, difficult piece that's played in one sitting. It demands to be followed. It seems to me, quite clearly, that Beethoven was trying to manipulate people. The whole deification of these composers and the reverence attached to their music happened a bit later in the 19th century and he was sowing the seeds for that. It got me thinking about the connections with listening culture at the time, and I've written a short book on it for the Oxford Keynotes series.
Eroica Symphony No. 3
Arrangement for string quintet (anon)
In 2018, I was at a conference in Leipzig and saw this listed in an antiquarian catalogue. It's the only known copy of an early 19th-century manuscript containing parts for a string quintet version of the symphony, and money from a considerable donation to the University of Auckland music library, from Professor Nicholas Tarling's estate, was used to purchase it. I had to write the first violin part, because that was missing. Next March, NZ Barok are playing in Auckland and it will possibly be the first time this particular arrangement has ever been performed.
* This week marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig Beethoven's birth (the exact date is uncertain). An associate professor in musicology at Auckland University, Dr Nancy November has been awarded a Marsden grant of $600,000 to fund research into "take-home" musical arrangements of popular works by Beethoven and other composers in early-19th century Vienna. Her latest book, Beethoven's Symphonies Arranged for the Chamber, is due to be published in early 2021 by Cambridge University Press.