An article reproduced from the New York Times…
Hey, Ludwig, There’s an App for You
“I expected maybe 500 people would sign up,” the pianist Jonathan Biss, a teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, said of his non- credit online course on Beethoven; more than 25,000 people have enrolled. Above, Mr. Biss giving a lecture for the course.
Published: August 23, 2013
- At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, as at many schools around the United States, students will flock to classes this fall to begin a new academic year. Though “flock” may not be the right word for Curtis, with its minuscule current student body of 171.
Curtis, according to a U.S. News & World Report survey, is the most selective conservatory in the country, admitting a mere 4 percent of applicants. Its enrollment is held to a level just high enough to maintain a symphony orchestra, an opera program and specialties in fields like composition, conducting, keyboards and guitar. In its 89-year history, fewer than 4,250 students have attended the school.
So what on earth is this new Curtis course with an enrollment of 25,000 and growing?
Curtis has entered a partnership with Coursera — a company based in Mountain View, Calif., that calls itself the leading provider of “massive open online courses” — to present “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” a series of video lectures by Jonathan Biss, the noted concert pianist and a Curtis alumnus and teacher. The course is free, like those of full-time Curtis students, who study tuition free, in line with the school’s founding principles. It is also open to all, decidedly unlike other Curtis courses (if only for the moment, since the school will introduce a second Coursera class in October: “From the Repertoire: Western Music History Through Performance,” taught by Jonathan Coopersmith and David Ludwig).
Nor does the Beethoven course purport to represent Mr. Biss’s actual work at Curtis, since what he teaches is performance, at a level far beyond the reach of most struggling pianists, on an individual basis. Instead, this is, in Mr. Biss’s description, simply a course “designed for students of all backgrounds who have a desire to learn more about Beethoven and his world.”
“I expected that maybe 500 people would sign up,” he said in a recent interview at his Upper West Side apartment. And that expectation would accord with conventional wisdom, that classical music aficionados, thought to be generally older and more conservative than the rest of the population, are, if not resistant to the Internet and the latest electronic gadgets, still not entirely comfortable with them.
But Mr. Biss’s 25,000 students indicate that this conventional wisdom may no longer hold, if indeed it ever did. There is also a fast-developing market in classical-music apps for iPads, notably those from the British app designer Touch Press, one of which has sold more than half a million copies. More on those later.
Mr. Biss’s preoccupation with Beethoven extends back to early childhood, when he would hear his parents, the violinist and violist Paul Biss and the violinist Miriam Fried, playing the composer’s music. He himself came to the piano sonatas at 9 or so.
“There has been no time since then when I wasn’t working on something for at least 10 minutes a day,” he said.
He also developed a particular fondness for the music of Schumann, which he performed throughout the 2012-13 season. He has recorded some of it and written about it, notably in a Kindle Single e-book from RosettaBooks, “A Pianist Under the Influence.” “Most of what I know about myself,” he wrote there, “I have learned from playing Schumann.”
“But when you play a few notes of Beethoven,” Mr. Biss said the other day, “he wipes out everything else. I’m not saying it’s a matter of greatness. It’s the force of his personality.”
In any case, it is Beethoven whom Mr. Biss is now engaged with over the long term. He is recording all 32 piano sonatas for the Onyx label, which recently released the second of nine CDs and recorded the third. Around the time of the first release, early last year, Mr. Biss published his first Kindle Single, “Beethoven’s Shadow,” also from RosettaBooks.
Mr. Biss’s Curtis course consists of five weekly lectures of roughly an hour each. To judge from the first, the only one available for previewing, he speaks engagingly while sitting at the piano, smoothly folding in illustrations on the keyboard. There are periodic review questions, in keeping with Coursera’s format, but no exams. Each student completing the course will receive a “statement of accomplishment.”
Mr. Biss said he plans to announce office hours at Starbucks locations on his international travels this fall to meet with Coursera students in person. He also suggests that he has more than enough material for a second course on the sonatas, since, given the time limitations of this one, he can deal with only a few pieces in any detail.
Stephen Hough, here performing at Carnegie Hall in March, is the star of the Lizst Sonata app made by Touch Press.
In contrast to Mr. Biss’s course, Touch Press’s latest classical-music app, The Liszt Sonata, deals with just one work in great detail, Liszt’s towering B minor Piano Sonata, and does so largely from the point of view of a performer virtually in midflight. It takes you as far inside the mind of a master pianist in action as you are ever likely to go, and, happily, the mind is the immensely fertile one of Stephen Hough, the British virtuoso and polymath.
If you or I — I, at least — could even attempt a performance of the sonata, we might see those double-octave scales approaching and think, “Yikes, man the lifeboats.” Mr. Hough, who is also a writer and composer, is calmer and more articulate.
“And here you are approaching the notorious octave passage that most pianists have a little fear about,” he says with elegant understatement in his overdubbed running commentary, a mix of performer insights and structural analysis. “It’s a truncated decoration of Motive 2.”
Mr. Hough is most eloquent when Liszt is, near the end of the work. “Interesting that Liszt originally was going to end the piece in this mood,” he says. “It was going to go on, and it was going to be a triumphant, loud ending, but this is where he changed his mind.”
“We can’t just finish the piece on a happy note,” he adds. “It’s too subtle a work for that.”
You can listen to the performance (Touch Press recommends headphones) with Mr. Hough’s commentary spoken and in subtitles, simply in subtitles or eliminated altogether. You can view the performance from several angles, watching Mr. Hough’s face, watching him from the side with a view of his hands or watching only his hands on the keyboard from directly above.
In addition, you can follow a score scrolling in time to the performance. And from that hands-on-keyboard perspective, you can watch a graphic notation called NoteFall: bars or dots that represent note lengths rain onto the appropriate keys of the piano in synchronization with the fingering (red figures for the right hand, blue for the left), their falling paths giving an idea what to expect next.
There is written information about the piece, about sonata form, about Liszt and about Mr. Hough. The texts, including a program note on the sonata and a structural analysis of it (with audio illustrations available at a touch), were written by Charlotte Gardner, a British music journalist. With both the notes and the analysis come brief video discussions of specific aspects of the sonata by Mr. Hough.
The coordination of it all — especially the synchronization of performance, score, NoteFall and commentary — is a technological marvel. But this is more than an ultrasophisticated toy; the content adds up to a cornucopia of information, a veritable quick course on the piece comparable in a way to Mr. Biss’s Beethoven exploration.
As with any course, it may veer at times toward the technical, and the American user may need to bone up on British terminology for note values: crotchet for quarter-note, quaver for eighth-note and the like. But the beauty of an app, as opposed to a course or a concert, is that newcomers to any of the material may pick and choose, proceeding at their own paces.
The Liszt Sonata is the third classical-music app released by Touch Press, following The Orchestra, featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which quickly became a phenomenon. Released in May, the Beethoven app has been downloaded more than 600,000 times. Few sales of anything in classical music, now that Luciano Pavarotti is gone, are counted in the hundreds of thousands.
The Beethoven Ninth app offers more and less than The Liszt Sonata. There is limited performance video, but there are four complete audio recordings of the Ninth Symphony from the Deutsche Grammophon catalog: Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1958, Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1962, Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979 and John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in 1992.
Here, too, there are many extras, some written, some spoken. You can follow a score, Beethoven’s original manuscript or a BeatMap, a running graphic showing which instruments are playing at a given moment.
But the most amazing feature is the ability to toggle among the performances without losing a beat. Differences of tempo and interpretive detail are instantly apparent. So are differences in pitch, especially the swoon that comes with any switch to the Gardiner performance, which uses period instruments and a basic pitch about a half-step lower than modern.
It may be the wondrous technology that has attracted buyers as much as the content conveyed, but that, too, is tremendous, and it is good to get it into people’s hands, whatever the mechanism. In a broader sense, with music education drying up on so many fronts, it is wonderful to see both Coursera and Touch Press opening dynamic and richly promising new avenues.