December 21, 2003
Secret music

The good thing about listening to music from a walkman is that it’s entirely private. (Provided you don’t turn it up so loud that other people can hear of course.) You can listen to whatever you like and nobody will ever know. No possibility of embarrassment whatsoever. Spice Girls? Abba? The soundtrack to Amar Akbar Anthony? You can listen to whatever you like without the complication of third-party judgement of character. Your very own secret music.

I have a walkman. Actually it’s a tiny little MP3 Player that I bought several months ago - and it’s got enough memory to hold around 100 conventional album songs. Or even enough space to hold a week-of-commuting time’s worth of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. For this is indeed what I am currently listening to. For some strange reason it’s usually at this time of year that I blow the dust off my “Complete Piano Sonatas” CD set and transfer selections of it over to my walkman. In previous years I had to resort to recording as much as I could to cassette tape, which was an expensive and laborious task which almost inevitably resulted in me not listening to great swathes of the collection. Now all I do is rip the whole lot off onto a firewire hard disk and copy and paste any portion of the entire great swathe from the F: drive to the G: drive.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas are my secret music. The works are simply genius. I enjoy all forms of music - but I wouldn’t call myself a music connoisseur. Am just as happy tapping my feet away to Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman as I am immersing myself in the brilliance of Beethoven’s Sonata No.6 In F Major. What’s slightly embarrassing is the fact that these Sonatas form the only pieces of European classical music in my music collection. I am completely ignorant of, say, Mozart, Bach, Elgar, Strauss, Haydn or even other Beethoven - except where the works are popularised in some way - e.g. in film or TV etc. I always have a hard time explaining to people why I like these Piano Sonatas. e.g. my father (who simply can not understand how such music can be tolerated even for a minute) or Ms.79 (who cannot understand how I can be listening to Crucial Electro 2 hip hop one minute and then an “abstract” piano sequence the next). And because of that I try not to bother having to. Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas are my secret music.

The greatest pleasure arises from sitting at the very back of the the top deck of the bus with the volume turned up loud enough to shut out the ambient sounds of the bus whilst staring out of the window in a dreamy montage of of the world in slow motion juxtaposed with moving image of Beethoven animatedly performing at the keyboard of his piano. The effect is extremely moving. It’s almost as if you feel that Beethoven toiled throughout his life in order to bring us relief against the stresses of the modern world.

What is it about Ludwig Van Beethoven? He was not a child prodigy unlike many other composers in that era - e.g. Mozart. He was born in Bonn in Germany in 1770. His dad was an alcoholic and had a bad temper - but it was his dad that taught him music at first - both how to compose - and also how to play the viola and piano. Later, at the age of 22 he had the great Haydn as a teacher for a while - but apparently they didn’t get on very well. Nevertheless Haydn took Beethoven to Vienna (a European powerhouse of musical artwork) - which is where, at his first public performance at the age of 25, he started to make an impression as a virtuoso pianist. Up until the age of 31 Beethoven applied many of the composing methods taught him by Haydn. After then (which was in 1801) he started to develop his own style. The first of his “own style” compositions is the famous Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor called “Quasi una fantasia” (Italian for: “Like a fantasy”). This particular piece was dedicated to a 17 year old girl called Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, whom Beethoven was madly in love with at the time. (Incidentally - It was 32 years later that a German poet called Ludwig Rellstab wrote that the music was like “moonlight shining on a lake”. Ever since then it’s been known as the “Moonlight Sonata”.) Turn up your computer’s volume and click on the play button below to listen to it whilst reading the rest of this posting. (Go on - press it, don’t worry - there’s nothing to download!)

What you are listening to is the first of three “movements” in this sonata. It’s probably the most well-known of the three and it has a very powerful and haunting melody which was at first disturbing to audiences. Many scholars of Beethoven have suggested that he lost his lover at the time of this sonata - and that the music of the first two movements represents his sadness at this loss.

Almost exactly a year after publishing the “Moonlight Sonata” Beethoven, at the age of 32, discovered that he was going progressively deaf. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this was due to his habit of pouring cold water over his head whilst he was composing and not drying his massive head of hair. His hearing problems didn’t seem to affect his composing - but it certainly affected his ability to perform. 11 years later at the age of 43 he was completely deaf. He had become increasingly tormented by his deafness and had developed a very aggressive and argumentative character. He made his last public performance as a pianist at age 44 - but continued to compose in Vienna. Beethoven’s work during this period leading up to his death became more abstract and experimental - and is often described as odd.

In 1827, at the age of 57, Ludwig Van Beethoven died. Despite the abstractness of his “late period” music - which was not compatible with the Viennese bourgeois taste which tended to favour the easy-listening Italian opera style - he was regarded by most as an important public figure and composer ahead of his time. It is said that around 10,000 people attended his funeral. Afterwards, a passionate love letter was found in his desk. That letter become known as the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter - and was the source of much mystery and detective work for many years. Many scholars now agree that it was written in 1812 (a year before he became totally deaf) to a lady called Antonie Brentano - who was already married and was 10 years younger then him.

There begins in my head the development in every direction … the fundamental idea never deserts me - it rises before me - grows, I see and hear the picture in all its extent and dimensions stand before my mind like a cast …
Ludwig Van Beethoven

Posted by jag at December 21, 2003 01:42 PM

And I thought I was the only one under 40 listening to classical music on the tube :-)

Thanks for the Sonata - it’s great to have music selected to suit a post!

Posted by: James on December 21, 2003 02:47 PM

Hey - we are not alone!

Cheers - the moonlight sonata is always a great relaxing accompaniment to a Sunday afternoon reading session.

Posted by: Jag on December 21, 2003 03:05 PM

hey cool! u knowwat even me totally into classical music.…..Carnatic though.i mean indian classical music.…but i also like western classical too.……and me only 19! heheheheheee
hey y dont u do a thing.…make an arrangement as in whenever someone logs in ur blog, a piece of music automatically starts playing.….….….like the one here…very pleasant to hear.…..i guess it wud be lovely! :)

Posted by: Shobha on December 21, 2003 04:32 PM

Amazing, never listened to a sonata before, atleast like this. Did u store it as a midi?

I have heard some compositions before, but for me, the 5th Symphony (yes, the one that comes with windows) was the best. I dont know about others.

Listening to music on the bus after a long tiring day does bring up the spirits, especially like the one playing now. I have to settle for a radio rather than Mp3 player, and all I get are film songs.…

Posted by: sat on December 21, 2003 06:34 PM

Shobha: Hey, there is no such thing as being “too young” to appreciate classical music. Remember: Beethoven was only a child when he was being taught. By 22 he was a virtuoso pianist performing for the European aristocracy in Vienna - which was the world’s centre for musical accomplishment at the time.

I did think about having a musical accompaniment to my blog - but rather than start automatically I would give readers a choice. You will have noticed in the past that I have used audio and video (sometimes in Shockwave Flash) to add to the experience here. I will remember to offer such a choice more often though! Thanks for the idea!

Posted by: Jag on December 21, 2003 07:55 PM

Sat: yes - it’s stored as a midi - which means that the file size for 5.5 minute composition is only 13Kbytes! Magic eh?

Yes - the 5th symphony of Beethoven is undoubtedly the most famous of his works. But I would insist that his collection of Sonatas from during his pre-toally-deaf period are absolute masterpieces of composition for piano.

I usually find that listening to these Piano sonatas on the bus to and from work is very relaxing and act as an anti-stress aid. I usually leave radio pop and “easy-listening” music to short car journeys to and from the supermarket instead!

Posted by: Jag on December 21, 2003 08:01 PM

Jag! You are definitely not alone… I am a big fan of Classical music.
Incidentally, just this afternoon, I was talking with a friend about Beethoven and his 9th Symphony… of course.. Immortal Beloved is now a movie as well.
While we’re discussing music on websites, visit
Priesner is best known as Krzyzstof Kieslowski’s composer. Listen to his Marionnete piano piece for Le Double Vie de Veronique. Of course Priesner makes film music, but most of it is based on classical music. I think you’ll like it!

Posted by: Anand on December 22, 2003 07:12 PM

Thanks for the ref Anand - I’m glad that there are likeminded souls out there! I have to admit that I haven’t really experienced Beethoven’s symphonies a great deal - nor Kieslowski for that matter - but there appears to be a lifetime’s worth of learning and appreciation ahead!

We should definitely compare notes sometime in future.

Posted by: Jag on December 22, 2003 08:29 PM

Hi Jag,

This is another of your wonderful texts that describe what goes on around you and within you. Great stuff. I’m no great classical fan but I do think music is something that is intense and basically private. What is good and what is bad? Who knows, but you probably do know when it hits you but you have to face the fact that exactly the same piece is going to leave someone else stone cold. But judging by this site your tastes are interesting varied. Have you thought about giving us your Desert Island Discs?

Merry Christmas

Posted by: David on December 22, 2003 08:48 PM

Hi David, many thanks for the compliments! I would have to agree that the experience and love of music can be an intensely private thing - and is probably best appreciated that way. For like all forms of “taste” it is very subjective - and prone to much varied interpretation by others.

I will certainly take you up on the idea of sharing some more in a “desert island disc” fashion at some point in the future for sure!

Merry Christmas to you too!

Posted by: Jag on December 22, 2003 09:21 PM
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