In a fascinating article in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini observed that virtuosi are “becoming a dime a dozen”. Surely there’s some truth to this. Tommasini made the analogy to the four minute mile, once thought to be an impossible barrier, yet now surpassed by almost seventeen seconds.
And so it goes with the nearly unplayable compositions of yore. Music schools are producing brilliant graduates who are mastering the most daunting compositions in ever increasing numbers. Our understanding of the word “virtuosity” begins to fail when standards that were once all but impossible now are surpassed regularly.
What happens to your sense of value when those once impossible compositions have become surmountable? Terry Gilliam seems to have anticipated this, in a fabulous moment in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. We encounter the god Vulcan at home with his wife Venus. Vulcan squeezes carbon into a diamond for Venus (his wife). She strokes his temple saying in an exaggerated voice “that’s so sweet”: then hands it to her lady in waiting, saying in a bored voice “another diamond”. And they throw this fabulous creation onto a heap of similar brilliant creations. The fabulous that is repeated can become banal. Perhaps we’re in the same situation as Venus. Cheap CDs abound. Good music is ubiquitous, on TV, radio, especially the internet. One could easily forget how difficult it is to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto, when one doesn’t have to ever see the musician struggling with the notes.
I say all this as a preamble to an appreciation for an ambitious artist in our midst. As you will have read before in this blog, Stewart Goodyear is undertaking something extraordinary, namely to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. It’s probably been done before, but that doesn’t take anything away from Goodyear’s ambitions. In a world where some like Tommasini wonder whether we’ve run out of mountains to climb, Goodyear seems to have found us a new Everest, and in the process has stirred up some genuine interest & controversy.
There’s an element of the circus feat, the death-defying performance. And that’s fine, in my books. Goodyear will surely survive in every sense. More importantly, the audience will be taken to a different place. It may be transgressive to present Beethoven without the usual reverence; but I believe Goodyear comes to Beethoven with a missionary zeal.
Perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we’re up to this Beethoven Marathon of his, whether we’re bringing the right mental attitude.
I confess I won’t hear all of it, as it’s simply too much for me physically to sit there for so long. But I wish Goodyear well, and am looking forward to the experience, which I believe will be enlightening.