What a fine line we classical musicians have to tread! Most everyone already has heard most of the pieces we play; some listeners even know every single note. We are suppoused to be faithful to the score, yet not sound pedantic. Not an easy task!

I recall that a young colleague of mine at the Vienna Conservatory played once a Mozart Sonata in what seemed an overly calculated and pompous way, as if trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. When she finished, the professor commented ironically: Schon Professorin! (I would translate it loosely as: Already a little professor!).

Indeed, at the same time that we endeavor to be accurate with the mechanical details, and faithful to the composer’s intentions and to the style, we must make that old sonata sound fresh, as if we were just then improvising the piece. We must play with spontaneity, with abandon!!!

Take the first measures of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata by Beethoven. Even though we have heard it again and again, we must not forget that when it was written in 1801 no one had composed anything like it. So, in fact, if we dare play it, we must erase over two hundred years of music from our minds, and at that moment hear it as something completely new, revolutionary, even shocking.

Imagine how those broken chord figures set against the slow moving bass octaves- and in the remote and trepidating key of C sharp minor -must have sounded to Beethoven’s contemporaries in relation to the works of Haydn, Mozart and other composers from that period to which they were accustomed. The knowledgeable Viennese listeners had probably assimilated either directly of indirectly some of the Baroque style, some Empfindsamer Styl compoyitions and then some Mozart and Haydn, throw in some Porpora, Salieri, Hasse, Martin y Soler and perhaps some Dussek.  

The harmonies and passages created by Beethoven in the Moonlight Sonata must have sounded disquieting, eerie, and the insistence of the repeated note motif haunting. Surely to our dulled XXI century ears, after assimilating an additional two hundred years of music that include Schoenberg, Bartok and Webern, this Sonata could sound quite mild.

But if we are to keep the sense of this music alive, we must clean our ears, as the taster cleans his tongue and mouth of any residue, so that she may fully appreciate a different flavor. We must erase from our minds and ears all subsequent music and hear this sonata with pristine ears, as when it was first conceived and performed. We must react to the music and not take it for granted. And while we are at it, we must at all costs avoid over-practicing. That way we may keep our emotional reaction to the music fresh and spontaneous.