Marathon with a Capital B!

3MBS Beethoven Marathon – 3/3/13 BMW Edge, Melbourne

I spent five hours on Sunday listening to pianists play Beethoven. an compared to some of the audience I felt like a distinct lightweight. The really dedicated had been there for seven hours by the time I arrived, and stayed for another two after I headed home to bed. Just piano, just Beethoven. Since I was volunteering at the event, I’m not going to give a review per say. Instead, this is something of a meditation on why musical marathons seem to all of a sudden be incredibly popular.

The basic premise is this: in one day, all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are performed by Melbourne and Australia’s top pianists. Organised into 2-hour sessions, audiences can either buy single tickets or a full day pass. Rather than being organised in chronological order, which would have put most of the weightier sonatas in the evening, each session was organised so as to provide a contrast of characters and periods. It was a great success by any measure: there was standing room only in every one of the seven session.

What appeals to audiences (myself included) about the intensity of this experience? The classical music marathon seems to have become a mainstay of late. In Melbourne alone there has been the Beethoven Symphonic Marathon (MSO 2011), the seventeen-hour Bach Organ Marathon (Calvin Bowman 2009) and the Impossible Orchestra (MSO 2012) which was essentially a 24-hour long concert.

On one level it seems quite bizarre, one of the excesses of our over-privileged society. Why just limit ourselves to a single, digestible concert when we can have a whole day of it? We can gorge ourselves silly on Beethoven cramming in every single luxurious note. In many ways, it feels like popular culture spilling into classical music making. The movie marathon, the day and weekend-long outdoor music festivals that are a staple of the Australian summer. The difference is, though, that there is a level of concentration in listening to this music that there isn’t in more popular genres. At Pyramid or Falls Festival you can move around, chat with your friends, have a drink. For a classical marathon, you must (still) sit quietly in your seat, just looking and listening. For some, this was clearly too much – a girl of about twelve sitting in front of me in the 7pm session looked (and acted) bored out of her brains, and she was only there for two hours!

In many ways, the marathon ideal makes me think of religious ceremony, the idea of a protracted vigil to show devotion. Except here, the object of meditation is Beethoven. In listening to so many different renditions of his music, the day becomes a homage to his creative genius, an acknowledgement of the profound impact that his music still has so many years after his death. It recognises his entire oeuvre for the keyboard, even those sonatas that are often overlooked in favour of the ‘greats’. Though I am a musician and a music student (though admittedly not of the piano), I heard sonatas that were new to me. Beethoven is revered as a great composer for the keyboard, and such a concentration of his music alone must only serve to confirm this, as each sonata adds something to the collection as a whole.

But is it possible to take in every moment of this musical experience? To appreciate each sonata on a level that one would in a normal-length concert? Of course not, the specifics of each performance must necessarily be sacrificed when presented on such a scale. Memories of individual pieces and performances quickly begin to mix and mingle, especially with less-familiar works.

Yet I wonder whether this is at once precisely the fascination and the challenge. On one level, we aim for total concentration, we strain to take in every note, every gesture, every phrase, and find an meaning in each of them. We want to remember this performer for her grace of melodic line, that one for his delicate staccato passages, another for the chords that he sends ringing round the hall. We want to etch each of these moments into our memory as stunning, but we cannot. Some memories will stay, others will be lost in the deluge of sound.

Instead, a bigger picture must emerge. Rather than thinking of each individual sonata, we think instead of the oeuvre as a whole. We remember the complexity of harmony, the dramatic rhetoric of line, the sincerity of writing. At 3MBS today, a fellow volunteer exclaimed that he had finally realised it was all about the slow movements in Beethoven’s writing. I agree, not only with the slow movements being truly stunning, but with the weight of this gentleman’s discovery. He has, through this listening experience, found a key to furthering his appreciation of Beethoven’s sonatas, to contemplate them on a deeper level. And rather than feeling he had had enough of the composer for a while, he was actually listening to a piano sonata! He wanted to understand this music still further.

For me, the diversity of interpretation and style was most striking. In five hours, I heard eight different pianists play eight different sonatas, and in each I had a profoundly different musical experience. And I think it takes each of them playing a sonata by the same composer to fully appreciate this. Some bemoan the uniformity of playing styles today, and yet I felt that each performer gave me something to meditate on. The physicality of playing the piano becomes incredibly noticeable; some lend the entire weight of their body to producing almost every sound, while others seem to effortlessly glide across the keys. The depth and variety of colour that they drew out of a single instrument was stunning All give everything – their intensity of concentration far outstrips that of the audience – and yet each is different in the way that this reflects on the music.

I don’t know whether I would have felt this sense of euphoria if I had been there all day – those that did all said they loved every minute. Another 3MBS marathon is already on the cards, and discussion naturally turns to what the subject will be. I’m hoping for a day of string quartets, though this is rather more challenging to organise that pianists! One thing’s for sure, for better or worse I will certainly aim to be there for the whole day, luxuriating in the intensity of such an experience. I’ll just be sure to take a cushion – those seats at BMW Edge ridiculously uncomfortable!