Op. 111

From age 8, looking up from my teacher’s piano, I would see Schnabel’s head—my teacher’s teacher—scowling down from the plinth in the far corner. The marble gave weight to his authority and his fame as a Beethoven-player. I used his edition of the sonatas, sometimes wondering if I had to read the footnotes in all three languages to fully understand them.

At 12, I played the "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" sonatas in public, having mislearned them.

At 14, I first heard the last sonata, Opus 111, on a record by Schnabel, in the record library of the Toledo Museum of Art. Partly awed, partly feeling a sacred boredom, I knew that it was very great, and that I was not ready for it. My instincts were already that we pull ourselves up to such works by engaging with them and other works by their composers, not by passively waiting; but I wasn’t ready even to begin the process.

At 16: Opus 111 acquired even more of an aura to me and other students at music camp when our beloved Henry Harris wouldn’t play it in Piano Literature class. He seemed to know the whole repertoire by heart, and could play anything and give a running analysis—

"Where are we? Say ‘Second subject.’"

"Second subject!"

"Very good. What’s this process? Say ‘Imitation.’"

"Imitation!"

"Right."

—without interference between rhythms of speech and music. He analyzed several Beethoven sonatas in the course of a few classes, then asked us what other Beethoven sonata we wanted.

"Opus 111!"

"No," he said flatly.

"Hammerklavier!" we said. He said nothing, but just began the first movement, "Now this is interesting because…." Of course he knew Opus 111—he knew everything!—so his refusal to play it deeply impressed us teen-agers.

At 17, I read Jean Christophe, by Romain Rolland, which I understood to be a fictionalized biography of Beethoven. I remember nothing but the last lines. "Child, how heavy thou wert. Child, who art thou?" "I am the day soon to be born." I looked up the French; "Je suis le jour qui va naître." Heady stuff.

At 18, in lessons with Henry Harris, I learned that pieces we learn fall into two categories. Some we’re fully ready to learn. We have adequate technique and musical understanding, and we need only learn the piece. These we should be able to learn fast. Other pieces, we may not be so ready for; then learning is a "laboratory" for acquiring new technique or deeper understanding. This will be slower, but we should still be very aware of what we’re doing, and why.

Inspired by this new understanding, I returned home determined to learn something fast; and learned the Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 79/2, in four days, faster than I’d learned anything before. Returning to college, I kept it up, learning Bach’s D minor concerto in 20 days; 10 for the first movement, 10 more for the other two; memorized and more or less ready to play.

At 20: At music camp, Mr. Harris said in response to my query, "You’ve played some Beethoven sonatas, pal; it’s OK to learn the Opus 111." But I didn’t learn it then. Maybe I was still intimidated by Schnabel’s footnote about the triple trill in the second movement; something like, "Is there, after all, anyone who would even attempt this work, whose difficulties throughout are not less than the triple trill, without being equipped with all possible technical abilities?" Brazenly, I wrote, "Yes!" on the page; but I was whistling in the dark. At the same time, though, the idea of learning the 111 was thrilling, and went to the heart of my feeling for music.

At 22, after graduating from college, I learned that Henry Harris had died. A few months later, I moved to Los Angeles to study with Aube Tzerko, who had been Schnabel’s student and assistant.

At 23, I learned Opus 111 on my own, when Mr. Tzerko was away for the summer. In a later essay about him, I wrote, "When he returned, I played it for him. You can’t attempt to perform this sacred work without opening yourself up completely. But toward the end of its 24 minutes, while I was joining Beethoven in opening the gates of Heaven, Tzerko was walking around the room lighting his pipe. I finished playing and sat, drained from my first performance for another person; and he said, ‘Well, that’s very good, Jim (puff, puff), very good indeed—digitally.’ I said, ‘Digitally?’ in a strangled scream. But then…but then he sat down at the other piano and took me through the piece phrase by phrase, and every note was a revelation. I don’t know how long we were at it; but at the next lesson, my playing of the sonata was a completely different story. And every piece since then has been a different story, because of that one lesson."

Mr. Tzerko told me that, in 1936, he’d been in the darkness of the wings at Carnegie Hall, looking across as Schnabel played the last concert in his Beethoven Sonata cycle, ending with Opus 111. He heard Schnabel play the pianissimo ending, which was greeted with silence from the hall; saw him stand up and bow, still in silence; heard his footsteps in the silence as he walked toward the wings muttering in German, "Incredible, incredible"; and heard the applause finally burst and break, and go on and on.

At 24, I performed the 111, and Tzerko attended the concert only because mutual friends brought him without saying where they were going. (He never attended another concert of mine.) I encountered him in the hallway afterward, and he started to say something detailed and critical. I interrupted him, saying, "This isn’t the time for that. This is the time to say it was terrific!" Sheepishly, unwillingly, he said, "Well, it was very good."

Still at 24, I released the recording of that performance as the first album on my own label.

At 25, I got a call from a great pianist with whom I shared a mutual friend, through whom he’d heard my album. He was generous about the performance—he’s known for his generosity—then got down to fundamentals:

"You recorded that in concert?"

"Yes."

"With audience?"

"Yes; you can hear them occasionally."

"No editing?"

"No. I only did the concert once, so I had nothing to edit from."

[Long silence, then:] "You’re weird."

I treasure this compliment!

At 26, I played Op. 111 in the Munich International Piano Competition, playing just the second movement, as the jury requested. I’d prepared for this possibility by working out a mental routine to get me into the mood for the second movement without playing the first; but I hadn’t allowed for the absence of the right bench, that was low enough for me. I played as best I could on a bench two inches too high. It happened that there was a break right after my turn, and two audience members came up to me. A lady said in German, "Original Beethoven," her eyes glowing. How wonderful! And a short, rotund nun came bustling up to me and said, "I lo-o-ove you!" Grinning, I replied, "Well then, I’m in good company!" Her eyes got big, and she exploded with laughter.

At 31, I recorded an all-Beethoven recital of the "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" and the Opus 33 Bagatelles. Listening to the tape with me, the disc-cutting engineer—sharp-eared as an audio pro and the fine professional musician he used to be—said, "You learned the Bagatelles recently? And the sonatas when you were a kid?" It was my turn to be sheepish. I hadn’t realized how obvious it was.

At 48: Stereophile magazine designated my Op. 111 album a "Record to Die For"; this is an honor for albums judged outstanding in both sound quality and artistry.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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