5 questions to Jonathan Biss (pianist, educator)

Tomorrow, Friday, January 17, Jonathan Biss “one of the most thoughtful and technically accomplished pianists of the younger generation” (BBC Music Magazine) will perform music by Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and Kurtág at Carnegie Hall. Biss kindly took the time to answer 5 questions about his MOOC experience, Kurtág, and his Beethoven project…

You have recently taught a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas to 35,000 participants in partnership with Coursera. Can you tell us about this experience?

Quite honestly, it shocked me. This was not only my first experience with Coursera: it was, to my knowledge, the first ever classical music MOOC. Given that it was uncharted territory, it’s not exactly right to say that it exceeded my expectations, because I had no expectations! But I certainly never could have imagined that tens of thousands of people would sign up; that there would be hundreds of spirited and serious discussion threads on the course forum; that huge numbers of people of all backgrounds would turn out to be as nerdy about sonata form as I am; that this number of people would interact in an unfailingly civil, yet also passionate manner. It was quite the challenge to my natural cynicism!

Jonathan Biss - Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Jonathan Biss – Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Do Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent an opportunity to champion classical—and contemporary—music? Would recommend other educators to follow your steps?

I think there’s no question that they represent an opportunity, and my experience with the course surely proves that the interest is there. The only thing I would caution is that as with any “outreach” — and I’m not crazy about the word, but I do think that whatever else this course was, it was reaching out — it has to be done seriously, and without a trace of condescension. I think all of us musicians have a responsibility to try to build a new audience and enrich the experience of the existing one, but each of us should do it in the way to which we are best suited. This was a good fit for me; I know, from experience, that if I were to go talk to elementary school students about music, it would do no one any good at all. But if there are musicians/educators who are excited about making this sort of connection, I would encourage it whole-heartedly.

Your program at Carnegie Hall on Friday, January 17 features selections from Játékok. Have you personally worked with Kurtág?

I have never worked with Mr. Kurtág myself, but I’ve been present at masterclasses where he worked on his and other people’s music, and I came away in awe. I think that he’s probably the most complete musician I’ve ever encountered. My first experience of him was at Marlboro – he was coaching the Beethoven “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74. He spent about an hour and a half on the introduction to the first movement. He did not repeat himself, and nothing he said was external to the music, or remotely self-serving. It was all drawn from a rather monumental understanding — both intuitive and intellectual — of the inner workings of the music. Remarkable as these classes are, they probably would not surprise anyone who is familiar with his music — it is as witty as it is profound, and it has a precision (both emotional and coloristic) which is really something to experience.

The New York Times has named your project of recording Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas a “journey […] well worth following.” What is the current status? Was there anything that you didn’t expect when you started on this journey?

I’m 3 CDs and 10 sonatas in now, and more besotted than ever. I can’t say this was unexpected, but the variety of the sonatas — the sheer number of thoughts and feelings contained within them — is sort of miraculous. So each time I learn a new one, there is this funny combination of familiarity with a personality I’ve spent an enormous amount of time with, and the feeling of stepping into the unknown. If it doesn’t kill me first, this will surely be one of the great experiences of my life.

In Practice | Jonathan Biss: Piano Sonatas by Beethoven

Has your contemporary practice informed your reading of Beethoven’s sonatas?

I’m sure it has, but I wouldn’t be able to codify how. As a rule, I only play older music that strikes me as timeless, and I only play contemporary music that, however avant-garde it might be, has a deep connection to the past. So I see it as all existing in a continuum, and don’t draw sharp lines between my work on newer and older music. The one thing I can say for sure is that working on music that has literally no performance tradition has made it easier for me to work on older music – Beethoven very much included – without preconceived notions of how it should sound.

For more info about Jonathan Biss, visit