2017: New York City
jonathan biss says the unsayable
The first time I wondered what it might be like
to die, I was thirteen years old. The occasion
was not the death of a loved one, or a gruesome news story, or a Quentin Tarantino movie
(each of which I had experienced previously),
but rather my first encounter with Beethoven’s
Sonata Opus 111.
I may have been just thirteen, but music
had already been guiding and goading me—
upsetting my applecart—for years; it stuck its
pincers in me early and never let go. Growing
up in a house with two professional violinists
and one well-used record player, music was not
just ever present, it was the vernacular. When I
And what a language! From the beginning,
it dazzled me. Music was poetic, intense, be-
guiling; English seemed frumpy in comparison.
Before I even began playing, Mozart’s Clarinet
Quintet and Verdi’s Rigoletto had commanded
my attention and jump-started my imagina-
tion. Once I did start playing, little else mat-
tered. Being able to access Beethoven’s world
with my hands, feet, and heart, I felt uncharac-
teristically at ease in my own.
Op. 111 is the last of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, his farewell to the genre in
which he was most prolific, the genre he revolutionized and nearly ruined for future composers, having exhaustively and awesomely mined
Jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington.