Courtesy of our Bass Player Matthew Heller

Earlier this fall, I studied Beethoven’s piano sonatas with Jonathan Biss, one of the most electrifying pianists working today. Over five weeks, we discussed their dramatic shifts in form and structure, exciting innovations of tonality, and unique place in the repertoire. We discussed several sonatas in depth, as well as the historical context in which they were written.

All this is despite the fact that I can’t play the piano very well, and I’ve never actually met Jonathan Biss in person. He was my teacher for Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by the Curtis Institute of Music through the website Coursera. Here’s a link to the course.

I first heard of the course thanks to a New York Times article: Hey, Ludwig, There’s an App for You. I had heard about MOOCs before, but this was the first that inspired me to sign up. Partly it was the name of Jonathan Biss, whose playing I’ve long admired; the topic was also intriguing. I have played all of Beethoven’s symphonic pieces, some many times, but knew very little about his piano sonatas. Earlier this past summer, I heard Anton Kuerti perform one of the last sonatas, no. 28, and I was impressed by the freedom of the music; it felt improvised, but with an urgency to every gesture.

Jonathan Biss’ teaching has a certain kind of urgency as well, largely due to the parameters of the course. It was five hour-long lectures, which isn’t enough time even to play all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, much less convey anything of any depth about each of them. So he chose several to focus on in detail, and others to briefly reference.

Each lecture was also divided into shorter sections with a review question – which were usually fairly simple, basically to confirm that you were awake. There were also writing assignments, which were to be submitted and reviewed by fellow students (“Courserians”, as Biss called us). Somehow I didn’t figure out this process until it was too late, however! If I take another MOOC, I would definitely try and keep up with the lessons (they became available each Tuesday to download or watch online), and take part in the assignments.

What I took away from the course was, first of all, a renewed respect for Beethoven’s achievements – in many ways his piano sonatas surpass even the symphonies. Jonathan Biss managed to squeeze a lot of historical and musicological detail into his lectures, but he primarily spoke as a musician and performer. His way of speaking about the music, his gestures and imagery, and of course his beautifully elegant playing demonstrations, all made for an entertaining and illuminating experience.

I’m thrilled that Jonathan Biss will be performing with the CPO later this month, on November 29 and 30th. And while I would be glad to hear him play almost anything, I’m especially excited by the piece he’ll be playing with us that weekend, Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto.