Rhinegold Jessica Duchen plays Brahms' piano in Hamburg

Jessica Duchen

Thinking big

4:13, 22nd December 2020

Little girls don’t play big Beethoven… or do they? Jessica Duchen examines established thinking on gendered repertoire

I’m flying. I’ve just been playing through Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and feel uplifted to the stratosphere on a natural high. I’m wondering why I’ve never done this before.

It turns out this scrumptious work sounds more difficult technically than it actually is (with the exception of those infamous glissando octaves in the coda). Of course, you need stamina, speed and energy, and you need to learn the notes thoroughly. But some day it’ll be like zooming down the autobahn at full tilt with the roof lowered, the sun on your hat and the Rhine sparkling in the distance. Moreover, this is music that lifts your spirits, fills your heart and gives you the courage to carry on.

It would have been much easier for me to learn it 30 years ago than it is now – yet it never occurred to me to try. Getting back to my piano-playing in earnest (one of the upsides of lockdown), I want to know what stopped me. During this Beethoven anniversary year, I’ve been hearing some commentators claim that Beethoven is defined by his virility, his determination to have the last word and suchlike, and I’ve been wondering if there is a kind of unspoken cultural perception that Little Girls Don’t Play Big Beethoven – and whether, somehow, we ‘little girls’ bought into this ourselves. (Incidentally, I adored my piano teachers, who were all dynamic women with a fine standing in the profession, so I am not blaming them for this in any way.)

As a student I dared not approach the Waldstein. I was five foot three, light and slight – those were the days – and could just about stretch a ninth. I reckon I was perceived to have some brain, but not much brawn. The drawbacks of girldom at the piano became apparent in a duet-playing class at a music college I briefly attended: the professor assigned me and my petite Japanese fellow student Fauré’s Dolly Suite, while the boys tackled beefy Brahms. Yuko and I rebelled and brought in a Schubert Marche militaire. I love Fauré, but really.

I didn’t learn many Beethoven sonatas. The obligatory Op 2/1 as a kid, then Op 28, Op 31/2 for my university final recital, and ‘the notes’ of Op 110. But for concerts, exams and competitions, it’s the biggies that impress. The giant, ‘heroic period’ sonatas… for which, oh dear, you appear to need big hands, muscle and power. So there I was, finicking around with delicate Debussy and introverted Schubert – both composers desperately difficult to play, but carrying little weight in the fickle audience perception of virtuosity – while the boys could pick (or were assigned) loud, fast, impressive, sure-fire-winner pieces before you could say ‘Ludwig’. Some years later I interviewed Mikhail Pletnev. I couldn’t help noticing that he, too, had small hands. We measured. Same size. I bet nobody ever said, ‘Oh no, darling, you must play Mozart instead,’ to him.

Many years ago, my violinist husband decided he wanted to do the César Franck Sonata. My knee-jerk reaction was, ‘I can’t play that piano part. It’s too difficult and I can’t stretch it.’ He suggested I try before deciding. It was challenging – but with systematic work, I discovered my own best means to tackle it. To my amazement, there wasn’t much in the end that a pronated elbow, a psychological tape-measure (that ‘massive’ leap is all of about 15 inches), a metronome and a skip-load of determination couldn’t solve. We performed it. It went well. It felt unbelievable.

What had been stopping me? Simple lack of confidence? Or a zeitgeist that said, ‘nice young middle-class women should play clever, intellectual things, but not big, impressive, knock-em-dead ones’? The latter are just so much more fun.

Was this what we now term unconscious bias? Instilling ‘nice middle-class girls’ with such an inferiority complex that some of us became convinced we could not play ‘big’ pieces – or perhaps that we should not, dare not, take off the brakes and play something that positively requires one to enjoy the ride at full tilt? Freud would have had something to say about that.

Fortunately, the piano world is full of incredible women proving daily that they can do anything and everything. Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida, Maria João Pires, Imogen Cooper, Angela Hewitt, Yuja Wang, Gabriela Montero, Beatrice Rana, Yulianna Avdeeva, Zlata Chochieva – the list could go on for pages. And while growing up, I personally was lucky enough to hear Annie Fischer, Alicia de Larrocha, Tatyana Nikolaeva and Rosalyn Tureck in concert. There wasn’t a shortage of role models. My own hang-ups likely stemmed from deep-rooted cultural forces that have nothing to do with the piano. But it’s also the case that there was little to disabuse me of these misapprehensions back in the 1980s.

So, don’t let anybody tell you ‘you can’t’. Don’t let them typecast you. And don’t be squashed by anyone’s preconceptions, especially not your own. Today, ploughing through the Waldstein at last, I still have small hands. But crucially, I no longer give a damn.

Jessica Duchen’s Immortal explores the mystery of Beethoven’s lost love – Immortal Beloved (Unbound, 2020)

‘The perfect companion for this landmark Beethoven anniversary year … bringing the human, vulnerable side of Beethoven into focus’
Marin Alsop

Immortal is a revelation, offering the ideal blend of historic exactitude and a book you simply won’t want to put down.’
Daniel Hope, President of the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn


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