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

Much has been written on Beethoven's piano sonatas, considered by Flans von Bülow as the most significant collection of pieces in the piano repertory, following J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as the New Testa- ment 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 monu- mental 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 superfi- cial 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 mark- ings 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 / Für das piano-forte / oder - - Hämmer-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, reca- pitulation of the opening theme in the last movement (cyclical form) and explicit relationships between the themes used in different move- ments (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 at- tached not to opus 101 but to Sonata no. 29, op. 106. The composer un- dertook his last keyboard works using a (Broadwood) English-action piano, which contrasted with the Viennese-action instruments he had been using up until then. It has been suggested that the use of the term Hammerklavier may possibly have been related to this new piano; however, it has more to do with the assertion of nationalist feeling mentioned above, given that he received the new instrument around mid-1818, when the work was in its final stage of composition. Indeed, opus 106 ex- ceeds even the range of the Broadwood.5

Many factors came together in the creation of this work. The years be- tween 1807 and 1812 were one of Beethoven's most fruitful periods. During that time he composed four symphonies (nos. 5-8), piano sonatas (opp. 78-81 a), the "Emperor" Piano Concerto, the Mass in C Major, and various chamber works. From that point onward his output was drastically reduced, and he entered a dark period, the start of which is variously dated by different authors: 1812, with the completion of his last violin sonata, op. …

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