Saturday, April 28, 2018

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 29 In B-flat Major 'Hammerklavier'

Beethoven composed the 29th piano sonata in 1817-1818, and it was around this time that he began to use his native German language instead of the more traditional Italian for his compositions. The sonata in German was called Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, and although the 28th sonata was the first one to have a German title, this sonata has been known as the Hammerklavier for many years. The literal translation of hammerklavier is hammer keyboard.

The sonata belongs to  Beethoven's third compositional style period, and for many years the difficulties both technically and interpretively prevented it from being played.  Beethoven's piano student Carl Czerny studied all of the sonatas with him and could have played the Hammerklavier, but it was not in a public performance. Pride of place for the first public performance of which there is evidence goes to Franz Liszt who played it in Paris in 1836. Hector Berlioz wrote a review of the performance that said in part:
Liszt has explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him. It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood has shown that he is a pianist of the future.
This sonata is the only one in which Beethoven included beats per minute markings for the metronome, and the discussion is ongoing as to the validity of them. Due to the fast tempos indicated by Beethoven, there have been arguments suggesting that his metronome was in error, or that his deafness prevented him from actually hearing the work at the given tempo, while others say that other works that he left markings for were not excessive, and that he wanted the fast tempos. The question of tempo has lead to performances of about 40 minutes if the metronome markings are followed to performances on the other ends of the scale that are 50 or more minutes. As with any great masterwork, the artistry of the performer determines the value of the interpretation. There are recorded performances from both extremes that are very good, as well as performances that take more of the middle ground that are very good.

The sonata is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The opening movement is in sonata form, and has the incredibly fast metronome marking of half note = 138 beats per minute. The music begins with thundering B-flat major chords:
The first theme of the movement is derived from these chords and winds its way for some 34 measures until it comes to the opening B-flat major chords again, but they are only played for a measure until the music shifts to D major, an interval of a third above the home key.  The interval of a third and the relationships that evolve from it are part of the underlying structure of this entire sonata, and impart a different sound to the ear. After a short section of modulation, the second theme in G major begins, a key that is a third lower than the home key of B-flat.  This section continues and makes brief references to other keys along with trills before it leads back to B-flat, and the exposition is repeated. The beginning of the development section has the music transition to E-flat major for an extended section in counterpoint. The ensuing fugato is based on the first subject of the exposition and after a ingenious working through and modulations by descending thirds, the development begins to lead to the recapitulation, but not before it visits the keys of D major and the very odd key of B major. The recapitulation begins with B-flat major chords in the right hand and a descending figure in the left hand. Modulations bring the music to the key of G-flat major before a sudden return of the opening chords appears, this time in B minor. The music segues to the second theme that is now heard in the home key of B-flat major. Moving towards the end of the movement, trills in each hand are heard sandwiched between repeats of material heard earlier. The end of the movement leaves no doubt that it is in the key of B-flat major as it plays fortissimo in whole note octaves.

II. Scherzo: Assai vivace -  Beethoven opens the second movement with a parody of the first subject in the home key of B-flat of the initial movement. The metronome marking for this movement is also very fast, dotted half note = 80:
After the scherzo has its say, the music shifts to B-flat minor for a mysterious trio:
The hands alternate with the theme of the trio and the triplet accompaniment until the meter shifts to 2/4 time, still in the key of B-flat minor, at presto tempo. This short section ends with a cadenza in F major and a bar and a half of what sounds like a chuckle. The scherzo resumes and winds up with a stubborn B natural hammered out in cut time until the scherzo makes a quiet and brief ending.

III. Adagio sostenuto -  The third movement is legendary for its length, poignancy and difficulty. It varies in time of performance, but can take 20 minutes or more with some pianists. It was foreshadowed by Beethoven himself in the 2nd movement of his Piano Sonata No. 7 written 20 years before. It is in sonata form and begins in the key of F-sharp minor. The first bar of the movement was an after thought; Beethoven sent the one measure to his publisher as the manuscript was being prepared for publication and asked that it be used to begin the movement:
After slowly evolving, the first theme segues into the second theme in D major (the relationship of thirds continues in this movement as D major is a third below F-sharp minor). The development section makes free references to the first theme and is quite short. The first theme leads off the recapitulation, and the second theme is heard in the tonic of F-sharp minor. This transforms into F-sharp major, and the second theme is heard again in G major. The key of B minor makes a short appearance before the home key returns. The music goes slowly from minor to major until it comes to rest with a short arpeggiated chord in F-sharp major.

IV. Introduzione: Largo, allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto -  The abruptness of the end of the previous movement sets trhe stage for the phenomenal introduction of the finale of the sonata. In meticulous notation, Beethoven writes down his mental process of realizing the theme of the fugue that is to follow. With instruction in Italian to subdivide each quarter note into 4 sixteenth notes, and as the metronome marking of one sixteenth note = 76, this movement begins very slowly:
Ideas are presented and rejected; in G-flat major, B-flat major and G-sharp minor. Another episode that reaches fortissimo in A major gives way to trills and a lead-in to the presentation of the subject of a 3-voice fugue in B-flat major:
This may be a fugue, but it is a fugue under Beethoven's terms. While he uses many contrapuntal techniques, they are used with an intensity that is Beethoven's own. The Italian words he used at the beginning of the fugue translate to say Fugue in three voices with some license, he continued to make his own way artistically. 

The first performance below is by Claudio Arrau, one of the great pianists and Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century. His performance takes about 45 minutes, and he does not follow Beethoven's metronome markings. The second performance below is by Stephan Möller, a fine pianist who does take the sonata at Beethoven's metronome markings. His performance takes about 40 minutes. Each performance has its merits, and it is interesting to compare them. 

Claudio Arrau

Stephan Möller 


  1. Thanks for this essay on one of the most challenging of all Beethoven's works. When I first heard it performed by Sviatoslav Richter, I found the piece impenetrable. This astonished me because Richter is my usually reliable go-to guy for Beethoven and Schubert. No matter how many times I played the CD, the music eluded me. Yes, I heard the jazz-like quality of parts of its first movement. But . . . Then I recently gave Maria Yudina the chance to make a case for the sonata and it was su profoundly persuasive that I wondered what I had found so off-putting in Richter's performance. Your guide helped me to understand the formidable decisions a performer must make with regard to this piece. Again, thank you. And let me recommend Yudina's performance. It's heart-melting and soul-lifting.

  2. Alan Beggerow, thank you for this precious work you are doing with this blog. I just found about it,thank to a friend who posted Dukas's La Péri. I will be following you. Take care.



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