Making Friends with Beethoven – Practising the Piano

Storytelling and imagination are essential for delivering musical performances that go beyond being dull renditions of just the notes. In this week’s blog post, amateur pianist Marie-Louise Curtis tells the story of how she grew to love a work by Beethoven which she initially struggled to relate to by creating a personal narrative.


I am not a fan of short stories, and the same goes for variations. Why bother when there is so much more depth in a novel or sonata? But preparing for my ATCL Diploma this year led me down an unexpected path.

A long time ago a former teacher set me Beethoven’s 6 Variations in F major (Op. 34), as she loved them. I struggled with them as they were too difficult for me and I just couldn’t relate to them. However, I persevered in the knowledge that that they would be ‘good for me’. When it came to choosing repertoire for my Diploma much later, I surprised myself by choosing them as one of my pieces, quite simply because I had already invested a great deal of time and angst in working on them.

Beethoven's variations in F Op. 34

I prepared carefully for the exam, including opportunities to perform the programme publicly, and a mock exam with a previous Trinity examiner. His verdict: ‘You are borderline! You need to show how much you love the Beethoven – like the Janacek and Messiaen!’ I was more than a little shocked. I had practised the work relentlessly, but it was clear to the listener that my past prejudice remained and was evident. What was I to do?

After a lot of thought, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the message that Beethoven was sending which was so important – what did I, Marie-Louise, want to convey? And this is when it all changed. I realised I could consider each variation like a scene in a play, and as part of this, I would wear a different costume for each scene just as an actor would in the protagonist’s role. This meant I approached each variation from a different perspective, using imagery as an aide to put me on track, and I placed an emoji at the top of each page, to ensure I kept in character.  So, what has been the result?

zebedee from magic roundabout

In the opening theme, I see an opulent and overweight prince arriving in pomp and circumstance – maestoso and adagio. This is followed in Variation 1 by a beautiful walk in a rose garden, skipping through the deep pink blooms, with their delicate petals and soft fragrances. Then Zebedee (pictured left) from The Magic Roundabout arrives, bouncing his way through Variation 2, followed by a sweet music box Allegretto in Variation 3. I picture lords and ladies dancing in the Menuet in Variation 4. The Marcia, Variation 5, is an eerie ghost story with its relentless bass ‘c’ and lots of ‘boo’ moments in the sforzando chords as the ghost jumps out from behind the curtain.

Finally, a love story in the Allegretto of Variation 6:  Anna Karenina in her first realisation that she is falling in love with Vronsky, the work reflecting Tolstoy’s breathless prose as she recognises the danger.  And then in the Adagio molto, I think of Beethoven himself. He has just written the Heiligenstadt Testament in October 1802, a cry of desperation but also determination. I see the final scene as a jubilant celebration of life from an incredible man and composer.

It worked! They came alive! I found I was playing with a lighter touch, less pedal and more tone. All together I was creating a more colourful performance. I am so glad I didn’t give up on Beethoven’s Variations, which I now love! 

I can truly recommend storytelling and imagery as a means to transforming musical interpretation – a wonderful aide for musical communication. If you haven’t done so already, why not try it?

P.S. For a magical and elegant performance of this work, do listen to Brendel’s recordings:

Further reading and resources

The following are some further resources to give you ideas and inspiration for creating narratives and bringing your performances to life:

  • Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature – Click here to find out more about Neil Rutman’s best selling book which brings together programmatic, poetic, or imaginative musical images and stories on piano works from the classical literature.
  • Awakening the Imagination Bundle – Click here to purchase access to recordings and resources for a set of online presentations by Graham Fitch on imagination, narrative and interpretation followed by a showcase of repertoire ideas at all levels, including both popular works and hidden gems. 
  • Going Beyond – Click here to read a blog post by Graham Fitch on how imagination and narrative can be used to captivate and inspire your listeners.

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