Sonata #29 in B flat Major, Opus 106 “Hammerklavier”

Composed in 1816 - 1817; Published in 1819

In addition to the Hammerklavier’s (1) enormous demands upon a performer’s technique and his/her powers of concentration, the work also poses unusual problems for the serious interpreter. It was published in both Vienna and London under Beethoven’s supervision, but the autograph has never been found. Unfortunately, the two sources contain many divergent readings, sometimes in important places. There is also an incomprehensible reversal of the order of second and third movements in the London edition.

Ironically, the area of tempo, where Beethoven ostensibly went out of his way to be as explicit as possible, is equally problematic. Although Op. 106 is the only piano sonata with metronome indications, some of these markings are simply ludicrous. Pianists who can manage the first movement at the proscribed 138 to the half-note (I freely admit to not being among them) succeed only in making as strong a case as possible against the validity of such a notion (2). Even if Beethoven’s primitive metronome was accurate, two other facts must be taken into consideration. Composers often “hear” their music faster than anyone else: they do not require the time the rest of us need to absorb it because they have digested it so thoroughly during the process of creating it. Furthermore, with Beethoven now virtually deaf, it is likely that he had lost the spatial sense that music requires in order to be cogent, and for its nuances to be adequately conveyed. 

It is commonly known that the Hammerklavier is by far his longest sonata. This is due mostly to the vast landscape of the slow movement. The outer movements are only moderately lengthy, while the Scherzo is one of his briefest creations. The piece is also sonically huge, sounding extraordinarily symphonic. (3) There is no sidestepping the fact that the Hammerklavier is also as tough, gnarled, and uncompromising as anything Beethoven wrote, except perhaps for the Grosse Fuge.

Above all, it is relentlessly obsessive. A single interval, the third, permeates all the movements at the motivic, melodic and harmonic levels. In fact, that interval forms the basis of virtually every principal theme in the sonata. Similarly, although the dominant note F might be expected to play a key role, with large-scale areas of the piece in that key, just as it does in all other works of the classical era, its role here is extremely limited. Beethoven frequently uses the dominant chord as a brief resting-place before returning to the tonic. However, never once does he actually modulate to the key of F. Instead, all important modulations are to a key that is a third higher or lower than the immediately preceding one. (4)

In other words, as early as 1816, Beethoven was attempting to do nothing less than re-define the concept of tonality by casting aside the traditional role of the dominant key (the second most fundamental entity in the tonal system), and elevating another notethe thirdto that level of importance. It is not too great an exaggeration to state that we must look almost a century ahead, to Debussy and Schoenberg, in order to find so radical a transformation of musical thought. (5)

For the sonata’s layout, Beethoven reverted to the four-movement Grande Sonate model that he had used so frequently in his youth. The opening movement is in sonata form, complete with a (very) necessary repeat of the Exposition. Immediately following the recapitulation, Beethoven jarringly introduces the theme in B minor, which he is known to have regarded as a “dark key.” From that point on, B minor serves as B flat major’s antithesis, with the struggle between the two keys occurring at various points throughout the sonata, most obviously at the conclusion of the Scherzo.

The first movement also contains the most disputed reading in all of Beethoven’s piano music. Just prior to the return of the main theme there is a progression of notes in the bass line, in which an A-sharp becomes the tonic B-flat. The first editions are explicit, but controversy exists nonetheless, partially because a sketch in Beethoven’s hand indicates a more conventional A-natural. More importantly, the music sounds extraordinarily strange as printed, even to late 20th century ears. Pianist Alfred Brendel believes that an A-sharp robs the recapitulation of a sense of triumph, and that the natural is therefore correct. I agree with Brendel’s observations, but not his conclusions. Throughout his career, Beethoven often went out of his way to de-emphasize the moment when the main theme returns. This is particularly true in the Hammerklavier, where the left-hand accompaniment ensures that the power of the sonata’s opening cannot possibly be duplicated in the recapitulation. (He is setting up the important B minor shock just ahead.) Since the A-sharp eliminates the dominant-tonic progression leading up to the recapitulation, one of this sonata’s fundamental goals is achieved by playing the music as printed. (6)

Very few compositions in the canon of Western music start or conclude as tragically as the slow movement, but elsewhere, vastly different states of mind are evoked. Beethoven indicates at the outset that the entire movement is to be played Appassionata e con molto sentimento, and subsequently directs that certain sections be performed espressivo, and on two occasions, con grand’ espressione. In other words, unlike the slow movement of the Sonata Op. 10/3, this movement is not a depiction of uninterrupted desolation. Central to the movement—cast in Sonata form with an expansive coda—is an extended passage where descending thirds are chained together melodically. The resemblance to the opening of Brahms’ fourth symphony can hardly be called a coincidence. Elsewhere, there are moments where embellishments in the right hand sound uncannily like those found in Chopin nocturnes. 

It is only in the final movement that traditional sonata procedure is abandoned. As in the Finale of the composer’s ninth symphony, the composer begins by searching for an appropriate conclusion to the work. A slow, introspective, seemingly rhythm-less series of descending thirds in the bass voice is heard, sounding somewhat like the awakening from a deep slumber. The composer interrupts the process three times in order to try out a new idea. (Of course, something similar happens in the ninth symphony, but there, Beethoven auditions themes from previous movements. In the Hammerklavier, the material is always new and each idea is faster and more contrapuntal than the preceding one.) Suddenly, he hits upon the idea of ending the sonata with a fugue. He is elated: those chained thirds become faster, louder, and more excited. Then he calms down, and the fugue itself begins. Beethoven had included fugal sections in several of his earlier works, but writing a fugue as an entire movement was new for him. And what a weird, grotesque fugue it is! Not only does it begin with a trill, which ordinarily is a concluding ornament, but in sharp contrast to greatest fugues of the Baroque masters, it uses every known manner of fugal writing—even the very rare technique of stating the theme backwards (set in B Minor, B flat major's sinister alter ego) —instead of only one or two.   

Finally, I offer without comment a quotation from a letter that Beethoven wrote to Ferdinand Ries, the pianist who played the first London performance of this, his most complex and ingeniously structured sonata:

 “Should the sonata not be suitable for London, I could send another one; or you could also omit the Largo and begin straight away with the Fugue, which is the last movement; or you could use the first movement and then the Adagio, and then for the third movement the Scherzo, and omit entirely No. 4. Or you could take just the first movement and the Scherzo and let them form the whole sonata. I leave it to you to do as you think best.”


Footnotes:

1 There is no single instrument called a Hammerklavier. Rather, it refers, in German to a keyboard instrument with hammers. Romance language terms – even for something as common as piano – were out of favor in the immediate post-Napoleonic era. Beethoven himself had also indicated that the Sonata Op. 101 was written for the Hammerklavier, but the nickname has stuck only to this work.

2 Solomon being the notable exception. I was referring to everyone else, of course.

3 Paradoxically, the sense of a piano (and perhaps the pianist as well) straining at its limits is required in order for that effect to be felt. The conductor Felix Weingartner actually made an orchestration of the sonata; the third movement is remarkably successful, but overall, at least in his own recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece sounds smaller than it does in the hands of any competent pianist.

4 Ironically, B flat major is only peripherally related to the intricate system of four keys he constructs around it, and returns to time and time again. Three of them, G, D, and F sharp, are separated from B flat by, almost predictably, the interval of a third. I believe that these unorthodox “ground rules” are one of the chief elements that make the piece such a “tough nut to crack.” The sonata superficially sounds as if it is in a traditional key, but its internal workings are markedly different.

5 In this respect, he was ahead of the late 19th century composers like Liszt and Wagner, who, by exploiting and thwarting our expectations of traditional harmonic practice, were still acknowledging its traditions. 

6 Perhaps Donald Tovey, the esteemed British musicologist, came closest to the truth in suggesting that Beethoven probably meant an A-natural, but would have been ecstatic had anyone pointed out that he had actually written an A-sharp. (The passage in question, by the way, lasts two seconds at most. Nonetheless, its importance cannot be overstated.)



—Notes by Robert Silverman


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