Becoming Them: An Article about Piano Music

James Wood's Life Journey with Beethoven

In “Becoming Them,” the young James Wood complained. Every Sunday afternoon, after an interminable morning spent at church and a regimented lunch including “fatally weakened vegetables” such as “softened cauliflower or tattered Brussels sprouts,” his father retired to the sitting room where he would sit companionably with the record player, taking in classical piano music.

The young James, perhaps because the shops were closed, found himself marking time with his father. Only three composers made it to the turntable, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert, and then a small part of their repertoire. Of Beethoven his father only listened to “a narrow but rich cycle,” the piano sonatas and string quartets.

Perhaps the tipping point that caused me to choose “Becoming Them: Our Parents, Our Selves” by James Wood (The New Yorker, January 21, 2013) as my selection for an article about piano music, was the deliciously rich language the author uses to complain about this trio of composers. “For quite a long time, I thought of Schubert only as the composer of snowy, trudging lieder,” he writes. “I knew nothing of the piano sonatas, now among my favorite pieces.”

“Most terribly, I thought of Beethoven,” he continues, “as the calm confectioner of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.” Of course, “all the tension and dissonance … the fierce chromatic storms … complex modernity of Beethoven was lost to me.” As for Haydn, “Haydn was killed for me.”

But of course, we know the end to this story, or at least the middle part, for as a young adult, the author falls crushingly for Beethoven, to the point where he communes with Beethoven in his mind. He cannot imagine life without the composer’s music. “Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did. And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion.” The satisfaction comes from knowing that he is not alone in mimicking his parents, in “becoming them.”

And yet the article ends on a wistful note, for he realizes that this process of becoming his parents is a way of mourning them, over time, in advance of their deaths. The author’s father and mother are now in their mid-80s, still together, but their existence precarious, balancing “on the little plinth of their fading health.” Most shockingly, his father’s CD player remains broken for almost a year, signaling that he no longer listens to classical music on Sunday afternoons. It is up to the author now to carry on the banner of classical piano music.

For more about this reviewed article about piano music, visit
Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Hi Nancy,
    I don’t have a subscription to “The New Yorker” but I was listening to NPR and James Wood was discussing his essay, “Becoming Them”. I was immediately captivated. I’m wondering if you know of any place that I can purchase this essay so that I can read it in its entirety. The excerpt that he read had me salivating for more as it piqued my interest like few things have in the past. I don’t want to purchase a $60 subscription just for this one essay though.


  2. Thanks for writing, Daryl. The only way I know to get the article is to purchase a subscription. Nancy

  3. I guess I see things differently than most other people. The first thing I noticed about this piece is that he allowed his father’s CD to remain broken for a year. Why didn’t he buy him a new one so that his father could continue to listen to his classical music on Sunday afternoons.

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