Steak and Potatoes

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine

Proust’s grandmother was a woman of extremely modest, unpretentious demeanor, who never ventured to contradict anyone’s literary judgment:

But on matters of which the rules and principles had been taught her by her mother, on the way to cook certain dishes, to play the sonatas of Beethoven, and to receive guests graciously, she was certain of having a just idea of perfection and of discerning whether others approached closely or not. For all three things, besides, the perfection was almost the same: it was a sort of simplicity of means, of sobriety and of charm. She reacted with horror at putting spices in a dish where they were not absolutely needed, playing with affectation and too much pedal, or going beyond the bounds of what was perfectly natural when “receiving” and speaking of oneself with exaggeration. From the first mouthful, the first notes, a simple letter, she claimed to know if she was dealing with a good cook, a real musician, a well-bred woman. “She might have much more technique than I do, but she lacks taste, playing so simple an andante in such a grandiloquent manner.”… “She might be a learned cook, but she does not know how to make a steak with potatoes.” Steak with potatoes! the ideal competition piece, difficult because of its simplicity, a sort of Sonata Pathétique of cuisine….*

Proust’s comedy sets the Beethoven piano sonatas in their proper place as the great representative of Western culture in the upper-middle-class household from 1850 almost to our day, as much a part of civilized life as entertaining guests and family dinners. Great painting was experienced in museums; reading poetry and novels were generally individual rather than communal activities within the family; the theater and the dance existed only outside the home, like symphonies and operas. For the children of a moderately privileged class of society, however, learning to play the piano came second—even if a somewhat distant second—only to learning to read. Particularly for young women, being able to play the piano was essential to their self-respect, affirmed their place in society.

For music-making at home, the most prestigious form of serious music was the Beethoven piano sonata. Except for The Well-Tempered Clavier, the works of all other composers could seem lightweight, and Bach was too academic, too learned, to sustain the rivalry of the drama and emotion of the Beethoven sonata. Even more than the string quartet, the sonata was, with a few exceptions, the province of the amateur musician. We may profitably invert Proust’s metaphor: the Beethoven piano sonatas were the steak and potatoes of art music, the proof that one had access at home to the greatest masterpieces of music.

They were also the bridge from the music made at home to the music of the concert hall, the staple of the serious recital program, the way for the professional…

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