Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, or Why I Might Be Okay With the 3-Hour Block

Last night, my wife and I went to hear the final performance in this season’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chicago residency. Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel performed all five of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello. 

The music was, it should go without saying, stunning. An evening spent with such amazing musicians playing such transcendent music[fn1] is, by itself, an evening well-spent.

But the performance last night was better than amazing musicians and transcendent music. Before the first and third sonatas, Han spoke to the audience. She explained why they presented the program they did:[fn2] in one evening, in a little more than two hours, they could present an overview of Beethoven’s lifetime of work. His work, she said, is divided into three periods; he composed the first two sonatas in the early period,[fn3] the third in his middle period, and the last two in his late period.

She described his motivation in writing the pieces. She talked about the cellists he had in mind, the audience he had in mind. For his middle-period sonata, she laid out his compositions leading up to and following that composition. She talked about his melodic and formal methods, comparisons between sonatas. She played motifs and sang them, telling us what to listen for. She talked about how his sonatas changed from early to middle period (in early period, the cello basically accompanied the piano, while in the middle period, one would start a phrase and the other would finish it).

And her enthusiasm: she could barely contain herself as she told us the wonders of Beethoven’s sonatas.

Then, after she gave us a ton of context for the performances, we heard the performances. And what would have been merely one of the best concerts I’d ever been to became, well, better.[fn4]


I feel like Mormonism is largely a performative religion. That is, we largely lack formal theology and doctrine; instead, we focus on the lived experience of the Gospel, and we reflect its beauty in our lives.

The performative nature of our religion may be good or bad, but it’s probably not going away. As long as we have largely a lay clergy and lay membership, our religion will mostly be the experience of living the Gospel, rather than the theory that underlies it. And that may be enough.

But some sort of grounding of our day-to-day lived Mormonism in a close reading of scripture, in theology, in history, I think, can only serve to increase that beauty, as it helps us understand the context of our performance of Mormonism. To stretch, perhaps, my metaphor: without Han’s explanation, the music last night would have been just as beautiful. I would have come home spiritually and aesthetically fed, and I wouldn’t have missed anything.

But with that context, she provided me with a value-added. I could pay closer attention, and I could understand things I wouldn’t otherwise have understood.

That, it seems to me, could be a valuable use for Sunday School. As it stands, we often focus there in the lived experience of scripture, in applying it to our lives. Which makes sense, since that’s how (mostly) we’re going to use scripture through the week. But what if we used those ~30 minutes, instead or in addition, to read carefully, to understand the context, the author, the audience, the theology, etc.? Ultimately, our experience of Mormonism would continue to be a lived experience. But that brief reminder of the context of our performance of Mormonism would add something significant, I believe, to the experience of Mormonism.[fn5]

[fn1] (in the Harris Theater, itself an intimate and beautiful performance space)

[fn2] (besides, I mean, the fact that Han and Finckel are married and that the music, if I haven’t mentioned it, was divine)

[fn3] (when he was 26. Overachiever)

[fn4] Though the Chamber Music Society’s Brandenburg Concertos was still probably a touch ahead, imho.

[fn5] I hope it goes without saying that, had Han’s discussion not been so insightful, valuable, and passionate, it would not have elevated the performance—no matter how excellent the performance—and it could have detracted from it. Which probably says something about how my metaphorical Sunday School class should be prepared.


  1. Beautiful metaphor and something to ponder, how nice it would be to be fed at church like that! But I can’t help wondering how a correlated Beethoven might sound.

  2. Correlated Beethoven sounds like all the many Kleinmeisters who wrote sonata after sonata that now gather dust in the archives.

  3. Sam, it’s a lovely metaphor but I’m puzzled how you landed on the idea that the Gospel of Jesus Christ as lived by Mormons and experienced in the 3 hour block is largely performative and lacks a formal theology and doctrine?

    What I think I hear you saying is that the lived experience of a Latter-Day Saint, in essence the culture, seems to inform the actions of many members you encounter. I’m going to assume that a similar population mix attends your Chicago Ward or maybe North Shore depending on where you reside as those who attend my very mixed demographics NW suburban Ward. The question is to what depth that culture is founded on actual doctrine and scripture and to what extent loose parables and exaggerated habits are driving behavior.

    My recommendation is that as interesting as Sunday School might be, along with Primary for the children, they’re supposed to be ancillary to our personal scripture study that would plant our feet more firmly on the true sod of LDS doctrine, history, and theology. That as parents and individuals within our homes we are where the difference happens, we are where the deeper dialogue and value added context are provided. That’s they way it happened in my family and it definitely is the message I think we hear regularly

    I love Sunday School, at least I used to when I could teach it or when I could sit and listen to Kevin Barney expound on the scriptures. I barely make it to Sunday School now with so many other responsibilities to attend as a member of the Bishopric.

    Different teachers certainly bring different experiences to the learning environment and the discussion that evolves. It really seems to depend on the teacher as to whether they are doctrinaire in their efforts to dig deeply in the form of a scripture focused course or float along in a life lessons focused course. The manual facilitates both so it will be interesting to see how the evolution of the Sunday School Gospel Doctrine structure will change as President Callister and his presidency overhaul the manual.

  4. I take my small children to church alone, and I’m currently doing my sixth tour of duty in nursery. The block is the most emotionally draining three hours of my week. All discussions of the usefulness, or uselessness, of Sunday school must take account of the significant labor required, mostly of women who are doing the bulk of similar labor during the week, to keep children occupied and religiously educated for three hours.

    Close reading of scripture and explications of Beethoven sonatas are lovely and soul-sustaining; I’m deeply committed to both. But at what price?

  5. stargazer says:

    Being in adult Sunday School and teaching adult Sunday School continues to be my very favorite part of church. I have not been able to be involved for years, leaving a nursery calling to go into a teaching calling for Primary. But I am pushy–i ask annoying probing questions and raise my hand as much as Hermione does to make comments. I want to TALK about the gospel. I want to dig at it, look deeply for the meat. And I love cello music.

  6. I’ve been in primary for 6ish years, and can’t we have some type of sharing of gospel lived experience with each block 45 minutes? How about we just shorten the blocks? At times I’ve found GD to be so insufferable I’ve found that HF must be putting me into Primary for that reason – but for the love of pete, the block is too long for these kids and those who teach them.

  7. primaryteacher says:

    Amen, Kristine A!

  8. Hedgehog says:

    “the block is too long for these kids and those who teach them”
    Especially on an afternoon shift, when primary doesn’t even start until they’d normally be just finishing school..
    At the moment I’m enjoying being in Sunday School though. It’s RS I’m finding insufferable.

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