Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, known as the Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, or more simply as the Hammerklavier, is widely considered to be one of the most important works of the composer's third period and one of the great piano sonatas. It is considered Beethoven's single most difficult composition for the piano, with the possible exception of the Diabelli Variations, and it remains one of the most challenging solo works in the entire piano repertoire.
Dedicated to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, the sonata was written primarily from the summer of 1817 to the late autumn of 1818, towards the end of a fallow period in Beethoven's compositional career. It represents the spectacular emergence of many of the themes that were to recur in Beethoven's late period: the reinvention of traditional forms, such as sonata form; a brusque humour; and a return to pre-classical compositional traditions, including an exploration of modal harmony and reinventions of the fugue within classical forms.
The Hammerklavier also set precedents for the length of solo compositions (it runs for approximately 50 minutes). While orchestral works such as symphonies and concerti had often contained movements of 15 or even 20 minutes for many years, few single movements in solo literature had such a span before the Hammerklavier's Adagio sostenuto.
The sonata's name comes from Beethoven's later practice of using German rather than Italian words for musical terminology (Hammerklavier literally means "hammer-keyboard" while pianoforte means "soft-loud"). It comes from the title page of the work, "Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier", which means "Grand sonata for piano". The more sedate Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101 has the same description, but the epithet has come to apply to the Sonata No. 29 only.
The piece contains four movements, a structure often used by Beethoven, and imitated by contemporaries such as Schubert, in contrast to the more usual three (or two) movements of Mozart and Haydn sonatas. It plays for an average of 45 minutes.
In addition to the thematic connections within the movements and the use of traditional Romantic formal structures, Charles Rosen has described how much of the piece is organized around the motif of a descending third (major or minor). This descending third is quite ubiquitous throughout the work, but most clearly recognizable in the following sections: the opening fanfare of the Allegro; in the Scherzo's mocking imitation of the aforementioned fanfare, as well as in its trio theme; in bar two of the Adagio; and in the Fugue in both its introductory bass octave-patterns and in the main subject, as the seven-note runs which end up on notes descended by thirds. It is perhaps the first major piano work (if not work of any instrumentation) to so thoroughly incorporate a Baroque contrapuntal style (the fugue) within an originally Classical structure (the sonata form).
The opening bars of the Hammerklavier
Duration of roughly 11–12 minutes.
The first movement opens with a series of fortissimo B-flat major chords, which form much of the basis of the first subject. Another series of the same chords ushers in the more lyrical second subject, in the submediant (that is, a minor third below the tonic), G Major. The development section opens with a fughetta subject that descends continuously by thirds. The recapitulation, in keeping with Beethoven's exploration of the potentials of sonata form, avoids a full harmonic return to B-flat until long after the return to the first theme. There is a virtually impossible section with trills on both hands, but with climbing octaves. The movement ends with a coda, the final notes one of the rare fortississimo (ƒƒƒ) passages in Beethoven's work.
II. Scherzo: Assai vivace
Duration of 4–5 minutes.
The brief second movement includes a great variety of harmonic and thematic material. The scherzo's theme – which has been described as a parody of the first movement's first subject – is at once playful, lively, and pleasant. The trio, marked "semplice", visits the minor, but the effect is more shadowy than dramatic. Following this dark interlude, Beethoven inserts a more intense presto section in 2/4 meter, which eventually segues back to the scherzo. This time around, it is followed by a coda (with another meter change), before dying away into the third movement.
III. Adagio sostenuto
Duration of 16–25 minutes.
The sonata-form slow movement, centered on F-sharp minor, has been called, among other things, a "mausoleum of collective sorrow," and is notable for its ethereality and great length as a slow movement (e.g. Wilhelm Kempff played approximately 16 minutes and Christoph Eschenbach 25 minutes). Paul Bekker called the movement "the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe". Wilhelm Kempff described it as "the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote".
Structurally, it follows traditional Classical-era sonata form, but the recapitulation of the main theme is varied to include extensive figurations in the right hand that anticipate some of the techniques of Romantic piano music. NPR's Ted Libbey writes, "An entire line of development in Romantic music—passing through Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and even Liszt—springs from this music."
IV. Introduzione: Largo - Fuga: Allegro risoluto
Duration of roughly 12 minutes.
The movement begins with a slow introduction that serves to transition from the third movement. To do so, it modulates from D minor to B major to A major, which modulates to B-flat major for the fugue. Dominated by falling thirds in the bass line, the music three times pauses on a pedal and engages in speculative contrapuntal experimentation, in a manner foreshadowing the quotations from the first three movements of the Ninth Symphony in the opening of the fourth movement of that work.
After a final modulation to B-flat major, the main substance of the movement appears: a titanic three-voice fugue in triple meter. The subject of the fugue can be divided itself into three parts: (i) a tenth leap followed by a trill to the tonic, (ii) a 7-note scale figure repeated descending by a third, and (iii) a tail semiquaver passage marked by many chromatic passing tones, whose development becomes the main source for the movement's unique dissonance. Marked "with some licenses" ("con alcune licenze"), the fugue, one of Beethoven's greatest contrapuntal achievements, as well as making incredible demands on the performer, moves through a number of contrasting sections and includes a number of "learned" contrapuntal devices, often, and significantly, wielded with a dramatic fury and dissonance inimical to their conservative and academic associations. Some examples: augmentation of the fugue theme and countersubject in a sforzando marcato at bars 96-117, the massive stretto of the tenth leap and trill which follows, a contemplative episode beginning at bar 152 featuring the subject in retrograde, leading to an exploration of the theme in inversion at bar 209.
A second, contrasting idyllic subject is introduced at bar 250, which becomes a terrifying bass cantus firmus, heard against parts of the first theme. The penultimate episode investigates the implications of sounding the main subject, countersubject and their inversions simultaneously in stretto. A lengthy coda in B-flat ends the work, the tenth leap and trill rising up the B-flat scale to arrive at two conventional dominant-tonic cadences which sound nevertheless strangely unstable.
This fugue, which Stravinsky called both inexhaustible and exhausting, ranks alongside the Große Fuge, Op. 133, the "Et Vitam Venturi" fugue in the Missa solemnis, Op. 123, and the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, as Beethoven's most daring and extensive late explorations of the contrapuntal art.
The work, particularly the last movement, had more or less to wait until the twentieth century before its significance was realised (possibly due to the difficulty of gaining a technically competent performance). Even as progressive a musician as Wagner, who appreciated the work and fully admired the late string quartets, held reservations for what he perceived as a lack of succinctness in its composition.
In the 20th-century, Pierre Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 2 applies a serial syntax to the playing style of a Beethoven piano sonata.
Felix Weingartner also produced an orchestration of the Hammerklavier sonata.
- ^ Wilhelm von Lenz, quoted in The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Ted Libbey. ISBN 0-7611-0487-9. p. 379.
- ^ Bekker, Paul (1925). Beethoven (translated and adapted by Mildred Mary Bozman). J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. p. 134.
- ^ Schumann, Karl. Beethoven's Viceroy at the Keyboard In Celebration of Wilhelm Kempff's Centenary: His 1951-1956 Recordings of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas.
- ^ Libbey, Ted. The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. ISBN 0-7611-0487-9.
Extensive discussion and analysis is given in Charles Rosen's book The Classical Style (2nd ed., 1997, New York: Norton): ISBN 0-393-31712-9).
Piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven
|Nos. 1 – 10
(Opus 2 – 14)
No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 · No. 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2 · No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3 · No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 (Grand Sonata) · No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 · No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2 · No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3 · No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique) · No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1 · No. 10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2
|Nos. 11 – 20
(Opus 22 – 49)
No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22 · No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 (Funeral March) · No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27, No. 1 (Quasi una fantasia) · No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight) · No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 (Pastoral) · No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1 · No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (The Tempest) · No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 (The Hunt) · No. 19 in G minor and No. 20 in G major, Op. 49 (Two Easy Sonatas)
|Nos. 21 – 32
(Opus 53 – 111)
No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 (Waldstein) · No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 · No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata) · No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 (A Thérèse) · No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 · No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a (Les adieux) · No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 · No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 · No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) · No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 · No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 · No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111