I first discovered it in my early teens, when I was going through all the works, and it had a tremendous effect on me. It made me realise that music was far more than just an expression of life, that it is a glimpse of the other side. That's the exciting thing about it.
And when you think that the work was written by a man who was deaf, it's even more fantastic, and proof that he was in receipt of inner hearing.
When Beethoven wrote Opus 111, he went without food and drink for three or four days, and he was discovered with his shirt ripped to pieces, one shoe on and one shoe off, the room in complete chaos. But while he was in that state of inspiration, nothing mattered except the urgent need to get down this incredible vision. Only when that vision had left him did his hunger and thirst return.
I don't think it's a good idea to start a concert with Opus 111. It should be preceded by something lyrical and not too strenuous, like Chopin, something that's fairly easy on the mind, which the 111 certainly is not.
To project the piece to best effect you need an attentive but quiet public, a serious feel to the occasion, and an atmosphere that is mature, like good wine. You need a hall that's not too large, a hall taking no more than 1,000 people, fairly dim lights, and people feeling receptive, but quite relaxed . . .
The piece is awkward to play - but that's of no account, it only adds to its character. The opus is in two major movements and starts off heroically, with the left hand having suddenly to jump about a foot. The beginning is marked maestoso: it's grand and majestic and very confident. The next part is fast and turbulent, followed by a more serene and peaceful passage - and then it becomes very energetic again.
These great contrasts in tone and mood of the first movement subside into a very peaceful and serene ending: there is a continued pedal mark, a simple C major chord is held, and the hands can come off, but the atmosphere is still there, gripping the audience . . .
And that melts into the second movement without much of a break. The next chord is also C major - unusually, the whole work is in the same key - starting the arietta with a simple theme . . . but simplicity can often produce amazing results. And then the variations unfold, gradually getting more animated, until, in the middle, Beethoven gives us a syncopation and quality that is nothing short of jazz.
After that the movement becomes static and deep, and the variations become more and more elaborate. The ending is profoundly peaceful: it concludes with a question mark, a rest, a sigh, a space in which people can exercise their imagination. The music has an incredible effect on the audience: you can see tears running down their faces.
If it has gone well, the soloist feels reluctant to finish, because you know that it means falling back into your normal environment, away from this wonderful feeling that has possessed you . . . It's a remarkable, fantastic piece of music.
I think the reason why I single Beethoven out as my favourite composer is because he embodies the struggle and hardship of life. He went through all the troubles that anyone could imagine, not least deafness. But there's no self-pity, there's no pessimism in his work; often there is tremendous humour and optimism. He realised the struggle was worthwhile, and it's a great example to people that you don't have to have an easy life to do well. I am always amazed and impressed by his strength of mind and resolute purpose.
John Lill is a concert pianist.
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