Academic journal article Notes

A Panoramic Survey of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106: Composition and Performance

Academic journal article Notes

A Panoramic Survey of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106: Composition and Performance

Article excerpt


This article draws together a range of perspectives on one of the supreme works in the piano repertoire, Beethoven's Sonata no. 29, op. 106. Composed in extreme circumstances, it takes sonata form to the limit, while at the same time revealing a search for new ways forward. From its first appearance right up to the present day, its complexity has distanced it from the general public, and even from many performers. The main object of this study is to provide elements that enable us to understand what is, in stylistic terms, one of the composer's most atypical pieces. For this purpose it examines biographical, contextual, and structural aspects of the work, as well as questions of interpretation on the basis of the various existing editions and of fifty-one performances, which confirm a widespread tradition of slow tempos, despite Beethoven's precise and consistent indications.


Much has been written on Beethoven's piano sonatas, considered by Hans von Bulow as the most significant collection of pieces in the piano repertory, following J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as the New Testament follows the Old. (1) The case to be examined here, that of Sonata no. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106, is a paradox. It is usually described as monumental and majestic, and at the same time enigmatic or labyrinthine, and it exercises a curious fascination over performers, musicologists, and listeners. It is regarded with a kind of reverence, which tends to form an impenetrable barrier, preventing us from seeing beyond certain superficial aspects of the piece. These can be summed up as its vast dimensions and its difficulty, which anyone can detect just by looking at the score or listening to the work. Given that information on this sonata, though plentiful, is dispersed, comprising a diverse range of facets (biography, musical analysis, psychology), the aim of this study is to draw together the majority of the most vital keys to understanding its scope.

First, we need to remember that the first sonata in which Beethoven included the German noun Hammerklavier (pianoforte) in the title was no. 28, op. 101, a work which anticipates some elements of its successor.


Beethoven had begun to introduce German terms in his Six Lieder, op. 75, and in Piano Sonata no. 26, op. 81a. The traditional tempo markings in Italian at the beginning of each movement are replaced in Sonata no. 27, op. 90, by expressions in German on the character of the movement, and in opus 101 (1816) this is extended to the actual title of a piano sonata: "Sonate / Fur das piano-forte / oder--Hammer-Klawier." (2) This assertion of linguistic identity on Beethoven's part is due above all to the patriotic and anti-Napoleonic feeling aroused by the recent Congress of Vienna and the composer's increasing expressive needs. Indeed, he continued using the term Hammerklavier for the next two sonatas, though opus 109 was not published as such. (3)

The first Hammerklavier contrasts in many respects with its successor. Opus 101 is compact, intimate, and poetic, and foreshadows many stylistic features of Beethoven's late works: an introduction to the last movement anticipating the material that follows, use of contrapuntal techniques (canon in opus 101, fugue in opus 106), and, above all, recapitulation of the opening theme in the last movement (cyclical form) and explicit relationships between the themes used in different movements (fig. 1), leading to works like the fantasy-sonatas of Schubert, Liszt, and so on. Indeed, opus 101 was a work much admired by Romantic composers, from Mendelssohn and Schumann to Wagner. (4)


In the course of time the name Hammerklavier became inseparably attached not to opus 101 but to Sonata no. 29, op. 106. The composer undertook his last keyboard works using a (Broadwood) English-action piano, which contrasted with the Viennese-action instruments he had been using up until then. …

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