Barenboim on Beethoven

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim talks about his deep relationship with Beethoven's music.

Daniel Barenboim
Published: November 6, 2015 at 9:10 am

Daniel Barenboim’s lifelong fascination with Beethoven has been a defining feature of his career. To accompany our December issue focus on Beethoven's Symphonies - out now - we revisit here an interview he gave to BBC Music Magazine in 2008. In it, he told Michael Church about what Beethoven’s works have meant to him, to classical music, and to the world.


‘There are composers without whose works we would be poorer – Mendelssohn for example – but the history of music would have developed in the same way without them,' says Daniel Barenboim. 'And then there are those who have left an oeuvre that could be a résumé of all that had been written before, and which also shows the path to the future: Bach, whose music looks forward to Schoenberg; Beethoven who looks forward to Brahms, Schumann, and Wagner; Wagner himself, and Debussy, and in our day, Boulez. Which doesn’t mean to say that Mozart didn’t write unique music. He was in some ways the greatest composer of all.’

So what’s unique about Beethoven? ‘We could start by saying what he was not. He was not carefree, there’s nothing in his music that makes you think of acrobatics, as with Paganini or Liszt. No virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake – his virtuosity served the experience he wanted to communicate: of being human. Of being deep, humorous, thoughtful – and of being able to do things which other mortals are not able to do.’

Watching the DVDs of Barenboim’s Beethoven master classes, one notes how frequently he reverts to the idea of struggle – of consciously pushing oneself to the limit, both technically and emotionally. Is that struggle the key? ‘People have for centuries identified his music with this idea, and rightly so. But I don’t want to cheapen it by saying he was struggling against his deafness, or Napoleon’s autocratic nature – those things are totally unimportant. What his music reflects is the struggle of the human being to better himself – the struggle to change, and also to simplify. If you look at Beethoven’s sketchbooks, you see him struggling to simplify his ideas, which usually came to him in a form too complex for his taste – he worked to distil them. All his work moves from being complicated to being simple, and more concise. Whereas Schoenberg went in the opposite direction – starting with a simple idea, a tone row, and then seeing what he could do with it.’

On the vexed question of where the demarcations come between early, middle and late periods, Barenboim regards the borders as fuzzy. ‘It’s a matter of stylistic differences rather than chronological correlation. The early period shows that he was already a great composer, showing much greater scope and depth in his slow movements than Haydn and Mozart achieved in theirs. The slow movement of Op. 7 already gives an inkling of where he will arrive in the so-called late period. The middle period – which you start to sense in the Tempest Sonata, and which includes the Waldstein and Appassionata – is broader and more symphonic in form, without abandoning the early virtuosity.

‘The late period starts with Op. 101, with Op. 90 forming the transition to it. But as for the conventional image of the older person who has mellowed and accepts what he cannot change – this is absolutely not the case with Beethoven, because late Beethoven is anything but mellow. On the contrary, it’s as if he’s saying “I’ve been through all that, and now I don’t care any more. I’m going to break with all convention. I’m just giving you my outpourings, and it’s up to you the listener to find a logic in them”. The logic is there, but it’s hidden. The first movement of Op. 111 is pure sonata form, but you need to be a master of occult science to find it. What you get at first sight is a very abrupt breaking of all rules.’ Late Beethoven, he adds, studiously avoids the piano’s middle register, where it sounds most mellifluous: ‘He wanted extremes. Everything breaks with the expected.’ Barenboim says his interpretations are changing all the time, though he can’t pinpoint specifically how.

Whatever his probing intellect touches gets drawn into the central drama: for example, he’s often spoken of the ‘courage’ required to render Beethoven’s characteristic crescendo followed by a sudden softening of tone. ‘This is because you have to adopt the line of greatest resistance. It’s much easier not to take the crescendo right to the end, so as to prepare yourself comfortably for the subito piano. Going right to the end is like going to the edge of a precipice. The easy option is not the best.’ In his first 2005 Reith Lecture, he developed a concept he dubbed ‘the tragedy of the dying sound’, suggesting that there was a quasi-gravitational pull drawing every sound down into silence.

When did he start viewing music in this metaphysical light? He laughs: ‘I’ve written my book, and just delivered the manuscript to the publishers!’ But at what age did that particular concept form in his mind? ‘My father always said “Before you play, think”, so this was instilled in me from an early age. And he initiated me into philosophy at 13. But that idea just evolved in my mind. Even when I was conducting the English Chamber Orchestra [in the mid 1960s], I was always asking them to sustain the sound more, to prolong it, though at that time I could not articulate in words what effect I was after. I just had an instinct for this idea.’

Excerpted from an interview by Michael Church. The interview appeared in full in the January 2008 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

Related articles:

- 6 of the best: Overlooked Beethoven Works


- Beethoven: What did the 19th Century think?


Michael ChurchJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Michael Church was one of the founding editors of the Independent on Sunday. He is a former television critic of The Times, and since 2010 he has been music and opera critic of The Independent. He has made BBC World Service programmes on folk music in many countries.

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