Jean-S├ębastien Caux


Posted on 2021-02-23   Anecdotes

One of the most interesting contemporary pianists is Krystian Zimerman. If you don't know him, he's well worth seeing in concert (his recordings are great of course) because not only is his artistry great, but he also has the well-known and long-term habit of telling nice stories during the pause.

A few years ago, my students and postdocs came over for dinner at our house and as a thank-you gesture offered me and my wife tickets to go see Zimerman play the last 3 piano sonatas by Beethoven, op 109, 110 and 111, some of the best piano music I know.

Zimerman's concert was really special: the music was great (unfortunately there is no free recording of Beethoven's last sonatas by him, but you can listen to the nice one of op 111 from Pires here and here ; did you know that Beethoven invented jazz & ragtime? 2nd video, starting at 6:24; also, did you know that Beethoven was essentially deaf in his later years? Many of his masterpieces he couldn't even hear himself).

As expected, during the concert's pause, Zimerman told a nice story... As far as I remember it went approximately like this (he'd have to correct the details).

He recounted that he had visited Beethoven's house some time back, and was intrigued by a wooden stick about half a meter long which had some serious bite marks on one end. After asking around, he figured out that Beethoven was using this stick to "hear" the piano: he would bite it tight and push the end against the piano, so that the vibrations were transmitted directly to his skull and he could hear with what hearing he had left.

Now Zimerman was excited by this and gave the idea a try one hot summer night in his house in Switzerland. He found an appropriate stick; to simulate loss of hearing, he put on his motorcycle helmet. Since it was pretty warm and in the middle of the night, he wasn't exactly wearing a three-piece suit. He tried, and it was working! But then his wife, woken up by the noise, came to see and found him undressed, at the piano, wearing a motorcycle helmet and with a stick coming out of his mouth. What one wouldn't do for the love of music!

As a an additional little anecdote related to Zimerman, you'll remember that when I was a BSc student in Montreal, I worked in a classical music shop. One of our regular clients was a great fan of Zimerman; he however had a preference for Zimerman's non-bearded incarnation of the early days (seen here playing a Chopin Mazurka) than the later bearded version (pictured here playing Liszt's famous B minor sonata or in video doing Beethoven's sonata op. 13).

This client was so desperately fond of (non-bearded) Zimerman that he showed up at one of his concerts in Montreal with a poster of him (pre-beard days), planning to ask for an autograph. When he got to Zimerman after the concert, he explained that he was such a big fan, but that he preferred the non-bearded version. Zimerman, after patiently listening, gave him a smile, took his big black marker pen, drew a big fat beard on his image on the poster and signed it off. The client donated the poster to the music shop.