In a seminar, I ask each of a group of young pianists to talk very briefly about a piece they know — as they might speak to an audience before performing. I urge them to be pithy, personal, compelling. I don’t like the “Beethoven-was-born-in-1770 approach,” I tell them. Music is important. It engages with the big questions, I say.
One seminar participant asks me to give an example of the sort of commentary I want. So, I say: “Imagine I’m about to play Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata for an audience. I’d go to the piano and say, ‘This is a piece about death.'”
Someone blurts out: “How do you know that?”
Almost as quickly, I retort: “I know that, because it’s a piece in the key of B Minor. And all pieces in B Minor are pieces about Death.”