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Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier“

April 24, 2022 – Marc-André Hamlein, piano

In the spirit of nationalism that erupted following the Napoleonic wars in Germany, Beethoven wrote to his publisher on January 23, 1817: “Henceforth all our works that have German titles are to have the name “Hammerklavier” instead of “pianoforte.” The composer also suggested the subtitle for his Opus 101 and 109 Sonatas, but in a curious twist of history only the famous Opus 106 Sonata became known by the designation—and that as a nickname rather than an indication of genre.

During the Sonata’s composition in 1817–18 Beethoven was plagued by custody and care issues relating to his nephew Karl and by his own continued ill health. Nevertheless, he had entered his late composing phase, concentrating on one particular work at a time as if to wring the utmost from a genre in expression, intellectual exploration, and aesthetic depth. The Hammerklavier, Missa solemnis, Diabelli Variations, and Ninth Symphony all fit this mold.

The Hammerklavier, with its powerful investigation of sonata form and fugue, represents a curious oasis between the daring formal experiments of the piano and cello sonatas immediately preceding and the Piano Sonatas, op. 109–111, that would soon follow. For the first time since his Sonata, op. 31, no. 3, Beethoven writes in the four-movement Classical mold, and yet he expands and explores the traditional forms to a radical extent. The first movement contains one of his longest development sections—replete with a fugal expanse—and his relatively short Scherzo nevertheless sports two trios. Following his slow movement, which is his longest, his fugal finale is positively massive—a precursor to his celebrated Grosse Fuge, originally the finale of his Opus 130 Quartet in the same key of B-flat.

Many commentators, led by the distinguished Charles Rosen, have commented on the structural and thematic importance of descending thirds and on the clash of B-flat and B-natural in various harmonic contexts. These unifying threads permeate the composition in a much more profound way than a simple cyclic quotation of one movement in another. The striking chordal opening with its initial leap and distinctive rhythm shows the importance of the interval of the third, but the exuberant gesture also refers to Archduke Rudolph, the work’s dedicatee. The same idea appears in a sketch with the words “vivat, vivat Rudolphus.” A further “Archduke” connection involves the present first movement and that of the Archduke Trio. During the course of their similar harmonic schemes, both descend to the exotic G major for the second subject and employ chains of descending thirds in the development.

The relatively brief scherzo adopts the first movement’s rising and falling thirds and warring B-flats and B-naturals but with a comic flair. Beethoven’s ending is a masterpiece of self-mockery—a jab at the weighty conflict between these two adversaries in his first movement.

Beethoven added the two-note rising third that opens his slow movement at the proofing stage. This may lessen the shock of the movement’s distant tonality (F-sharp minor), but only by creating a bit of ambiguity before the first full chord. We listen raptly to the contemplative mood, the delicate ornamentation preceding the second theme, the variation of the first theme in the recapitulation, the ensuing unexpected harmonic journey, and the exquisitely simple version of the theme in the coda, but words fail to convey the profound effect of this movement.

In the same way that Beethoven audibly searches for how to express the Ode to Joy in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, here in his Hammerklavier finale he “finds his way” toward the monumental fugue by “trying out” several styles. A decisive leap recalls the opening of the first movement and launches the main fugue subject. He then displays his subject in all its academic permutations—augmentation, retrograde with a new countersubject, inversion—and with the original subject heard simultaneously with its inversion. But instead of pedantic logic he achieves drama and poetry through varied textures, harmonies, and pianistic colors, and mind-boggling manipulation of tension and release. He creates something entirely new out of the genre, remarkably superimposing elements of variation and rondo form on his fugue.

The Hammerklavier Sonata has always stood out for its monumental proportions and its demands on the performer and listener alike. Beethoven was fully aware of its challenges when he told his publisher in 1819: “Now there you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played fifty years hence.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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