The list of things I know about Ludwig van Beethoven is a short one. I know that he was a great composer, that he was German, that he was deaf for much of his life and that he penned "Für Elise" and several other pieces that I would recognize by ear but couldn’t name.
But I’m always interested in a good story. So when I saw an article from the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS) about an upcoming lecture on one of Beethoven’s works, "Opus 111," I was intrigued. I wasn’t intrigued by "Opus 111" (at least not at first). I had never heard the piece before. I was intrigued by the fact that Dr. Stephen Husarik, professor of humanities and music history at UAFS, had traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to play a piano that belonged to Beethoven himself.
Dr. Husarik will give a lecture about this experience and his research regarding "Opus 111" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in the Breedlove Auditorium on the UAFS campus.
To understand the context of this story, you first have to understand a bit about Dr. Husarik. First off, he’s brilliant. He has literally written the book on humanities. Or a book, anyway. He showed me the humanities textbook he authored during my recent visit to his office in the UAFS Breedlove building.
Second, his thirst for learning and knowledge is furious. It’s evident within two minutes of conversation with him. His office, humbly tucked into a corner of Breedlove, is stuffed to the gills with books, papers, playback systems old and new … and a piano. I’m quite certain they must have built Breedlove around the piano, because I saw no other way of installing it.
His office layout and contents speak to his personality. As we talked, he glided back and forth from his desk to his piano to his collection of books and papers. If I asked a question about "Opus 111," his eyes would light up, and before the entirety of the question was out of my mouth, he had whisked past me to get to the piano to show me the answer to my question.
So how does this story wind its way to Budapest?
Husarik is a lifelong student of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. He’s studied all of Beethoven’s works and has a ferocious enthusiasm for the composer.
As a young music student, Husarik was exposed to "Opus 111," the last of 32 piano sonatas written by Beethoven. Husarik learned to play the piece (which is no small feat) early in his academic career and has maintained an interest in it throughout his life.
It’s a complicated piece, full of nuance and mystery. Particularly curious are the piece’s variations, which take place in the sonata’s latter half. In the nearly 200 years since Beethoven’s death, scholars have debated about the nature of these variations. Husarik, through his years of studying the piece, had his own theory about Beethoven’s intentions for this section of "Opus 111," but he couldn’t prove it without going straight to the source.
“These small notes,” he said as he played a soft melody, “they just didn’t sound quite right to me when played on a modern piano.”
The story of how Beethoven acquired his original John Broadwood and Sons piano is interesting in and of itself, but to keep a long post from being extremely long, suffice it to say that it was special to him and was the first piano on which "Opus 111" was ever played.
Husarik met some resistance when he called the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, where the piano now resides. He simply wanted to play a few notes on the piano and record them for later analysis.
“I thought that if I could just hear a few notes, I’d be be able to get a better sense of how the piece is supposed to be played,” he said.
Negotiations for Husarik’s visit took eight months, and what finally swayed the museum’s curator was Husarik’s tale of being stranded by a Budapest tour bus during a previous visit to the city; Husarik made sure to communicate his pointed displeasure with this experience when speaking to the curator.
Once the curator finally relented, Husarik arrived at the museum and was surprised when they shut down an entire wing just for his visit. And instead of playing just a handful of notes, they allowed him to play a short section of "Opus 111."
At the end of the visit, which included lunch and coffee, the curator asked Husarik, “So now what do you think of Hungarian hospitality?”
Husarik said he had assumed they had granted him access because of the importance of his research.
“So I had to swallow my pride a little bit on that, but at least I got what I had come for,” he said.
And the discovery he made while examining the piano was critical to his theory. On the side of the piano was a switch that when activated would soften the sound of the piano, much like a una corda pedal. Husarik played me the recording of the notes he was allowed to play on Beethoven’s piano, which were notes from the variation portion of "Opus 111." Though it was subtle, there was certainly a difference in the sound from the recording and the sounds coming from Husarik’s own piano.
While that might not mean much to a musical Philistine like myself, to music historians it’s a significant piece of information. Modern performances of "Opus 111," while still conveying much of the majesty and mystery of the piece, fail to completely capture the notes as Beethoven first imagined them.
The entirety of "Opus 111" is fascinating, even for the untrained ear. The first movement is bombastic in the way that much of Beethoven’s music was. The second movement is much more muted and represents “a resurrection,” as Husarik put it. And somewhere in there is a segment that almost resembles jazz, though Husarik assured me “this is no boogie.” Apparently, Beethoven subdivided the notes in one section of the piece to point that it resembles a freestyle improvisation.
Husarik told me about some of his other research. He was able to examine some of Beethoven’s original sketchbooks in Paris, something he did with great reverence.
“I realized at one point that every time I turned a page, I was turning about $200,000,” he said. “No wonder the security guards were keeping a close eye on me.”
My meeting with Dr. Husarik has changed the way I listen to classical music, and it’s made me want to dig more into the history and genius of Beethoven. My guess is those who are able to attend Husarik’s lecture next week will come away with a similar excitement and curiosity.