How to listen to Beethoven

Karl Lutchmayer tells Time Out how to truly appreciate Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata

  • How to listen to Beethoven

    He's got a little Liszt: Karl Lutchmayer demands your full attention (© Andrew Stuart)

  • Karl Lutchmayer takes his coffee black and without sugar; that is to say unadulterated, just the way he likes his music. In contrast, sartorially he is a very dapper individual, dressed today in a light-brown suit, yellow waistcoat, burgundy cords and blue shirt, finished off with a colourful tie. Throw in his recent Salvador Dalí-esque moustache and he cuts a dashing figure: a Franz Liszt for the Noughties.

    On Sunday he embarks on another of his Conversational Concerts series at the Warehouse in Waterloo. In them, he takes a handful of works involving the piano, explains their background and connections, and then plays them. As this 38-year-old British concert pianist is also a professor at Trinity College of Music (not to mention a visiting lecturer at the Juilliard School in New York), who has written several chapters of the Dorling Kindersley guide to classical music, and a recording artist, who better to enlighten us on the finer points of appreciating classical music?

    Lutchmayer's concern is that, for a variety of reasons, ‘we hear music, but we don't listen’. And this listening, he believes, can only really be done in the live environment. His eyes gleam as he expands on his métier: ‘Beethoven, for instance, knew he was writing a work of art for others to enjoy. So, he gave us the plans for the construction, but not the work itself. The real work is revealed when it is played and someone experiences it.’

    Therefore, we should clear our minds, as in meditation, and just listen? He shakes his head: ‘I have never done meditation, but I would say that when listening to music, the mind should be in a super-conscious state. Zen speaks of “wakeful consciousness” – taking in everything; being calm but very engaged. It’s not just cutting everything out and letting it all happen, but being as conscious as possible, listening to every note as if it has never been performed before; asking at every nanosecond: what is going to happen next?’

    To find out, it’s probably best to enjoy a primer from Lutchmayer. Just bring your ears; waistcoats optional.

    How to truly appreciate Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata

    Should I let music flow over me?

    ‘Certainly walk away from the mundane things of life, but prepare yourself for action. Listening is a skill requiring considerable energy, so instead of sitting back and letting the music flow over you, try putting yourself in a state of continuous expectation. Live in the moment, put the whole of your mind in your ears and allow your inner voices to be silent. Finally, only focus on the next sound you are about to hear, and when it comes, allow it to sink into your core.’

    But I know it well; won't I always know what the next sound is going to be?

    ‘Familiarity with a work means that we know what the next note will be, and so we can focus on what is special about any specific performance. However, we need to be careful not to listen to it as a comparison with another performance or recording because then, instead of enjoying the actual spontaneous interpretation, we are only hearing the differences. Each performance is a unique day in the life of that piece and stands alone; leave the comparisons to the wannabes and pseuds in the bar!’

    Does it help to think about moonlight?

    ‘Probably not. The title was added after Beethoven’s death by a critic who described the opening as “a boat visiting the wild places on Lake Lucerne by moonlight”. Actually, if you bear in mind that the tune isn’t the undulating notes at the beginning – that’s just the accompaniment – but rather the slower, intoning theme above it, it’s perhaps wiser to think of it as a lament; particularly in view of the long-short-long rhythm on one note which has always been used for funeral marches.'

    Does he go a bit off the boil in the second movement?

    ‘Liszt called this “the flower between two abysses”, and it certainly sits calmly in the major key between the devastating minor-key outer movements. But ask yourself whether the music is a little perfunctory considering its context. Then listen out for the disturbing, if guarded, offbeats in the central section. Could this be passive aggression? Could it be irony?'

    Doesn’t the last movement go on a bit?

    ‘Beethoven was experimenting to see if he could make the sonata as a whole more of an epic journey, so he put the longest and most organised movement at the end. Think of a Tolkien final battle scene focusing on a few major characters, as compared to other composers who were still writing Enid Blyton-style happy endings.’
    Karl Lutchmayer’s Conversational Concerts begin at 3pm on February 17 at the Warehouse, Waterloo.

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