Pianist's 'Private Communion' Goes Online

Jonathan Biss
The Wall Street Journal

Jonathan Biss Changes the Way He Thinks About Music

By Corinne Ramey

The pianist Jonathan Biss has groupies.

They come backstage after concerts to talk about Beethoven. They debate Beethoven minutiae. They write fan mail about the importance of classical music in their lives.

"It's crazy," Mr. Biss said of his sudden following. "I never imagined this kind of thing would happen to me."

Last fall, the 33-year-old taught a so-called massive open online course, or MOOC, which the Curtis Institute of Music offered through a partnership with the education-technology firm Coursera. While MOOC participation is hard to quantify, more than 20,000 students logged in at least once.

For Mr. Biss, who performs at Carnegie Hall on Friday, the course's biggest impact wasn't his new fans, or the way he began to doubt the classical-music-is-dying talk that is, he said, the background noise of his life. Interacting with his audience changed his approach to performance.

The class, which consisted of five hourlong lectures, focused exclusively on Beethoven's piano sonatas. In course videos, Mr. Biss speaks about Beethoven, swiveling between the piano and the camera, explaining why musical structure and the relationships between chords matter.

"Music is above all things a language," he says in one video. "Since no one used that language more daringly than Beethoven, the more of it you speak, the more of it you feel, the more you will find in his music."

Students took quizzes, wrote peer-reviewed essays and could participate in a Google hangout, as well as actually meet at two coffee shop gatherings. They also chimed in on message boards, "long threads about the meaning of the tonic-dominant relationship and the meaning of Beethoven's relationship with his audience, and comparing different recordings," said Mr. Biss, who lives on the Upper West Side.

"This is the passion of these people," he added. According to a Curtis Institute survey, students identified 124 home countries, and more than half hadn't heard of Curtis before taking the class. Curtis, based in Philadelphia, plans to run the class again in March.

Meanwhile, one of Mr. Biss's passions is Beethoven. He is currently recording the composer's complete sonatas, the third disc of which releases on Tuesday. Mr. Biss's Carnegie Hall recital on Friday includes, predictably, two Beethoven sonatas.

The pianist, a self-described "proud obsessive" with music constantly on his mind, had previously viewed performance as a quasi-religious relationship between a composer and his interpreter.

"I was very much focused on the sense of private communion between me and Beethoven," Mr. Biss said. If he played with honesty and integrity, a kind of mystical osmosis would take care of the rest.

But after teaching the online class, he has shifted his focus to the relationship he, as a performer, has with the listener, along with his relationship with the music.

"I'm sort of the thing in between the two," he said. "If I'm not focused on both ends of it, then why am I playing it?"

The Courserians, as the company calls its students, seem happy for the relationship to go both ways.

Wendy Yun, of Vallejo, Calif., said Mr. Biss presented the sonatas as a window into the composer's psyche. "It's almost like we got to see what Beethoven was going through," said Ms. Yun, 45, who works for the U.S. Forest Service.

For Laura Hoelter, 43, the concept of musical structure was new, particularly sonata form. "That was drilled into our heads," said Ms. Hoelter, a librarian in Duluth, Minn., who compared Mr. Biss's mannerisms to those of another obsessive New Yorker: Woody Allen.

One of Mr. Biss's more experienced students was Richard Goode, a Grammy-winning pianist who has plenty of his own experience with the sonatas (he recorded them all). Mr. Goode, who watched the weekly lectures with his wife, said that Mr. Biss's views on the ways that certain harmonies functioned were provocative, and even he learned something from the class.

"We took all the tests," he said. "We did pretty well."