Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”
Ludwig van Beethoven
It is, after all, just the German word for piano. And several of Beethoven’s sonatas had it on their title page. But “Hammerklavier,” that word, ringing as it does with vehemence and power, would only – could only – attach itself to one sonata permanently, the Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106. And it is not hyperbole to call this sonata gargantuan. In its emotional range, its technical difficulty, its sheer length, it exceeded any predecessor. No strangers to marketing, Beethoven’s Viennese publishers announced the new sonata in 1819 as a work that “excels above all other creations of this master not only through its most rich and grand fantasy but also in regard to artistic perfection and sustained style, and will mark a new period in Beethoven’s pianoforte works.”
Thrilling for the audience and treacherous for the pianist, a sudden leap of the left hand and a fanfare of fortissimo chords seem to grab and shake the piano into life. Immediately, this forceful entry is countered by calm, establishing the oratorical pattern of declaration and subsequent assessment, tension and relaxation, which pervades the first movement.
As an antidote to the constant striving that precedes it, the second movement Scherzo defuses the mood with humor and brevity; a transition to the unprecedented mournfulness of the immense Adagio third movement. The late Charles Rosen described it as “a work of despair so extreme that it seems frozen with a grief struggling to find expression.” We are accustomed in the music of Beethoven to a narrative current that runs from crisis to resolution. Because of this, the stasis of the Adagio is surprising and obliterating. Any glimmer of hope is immediately extinguished.
The final movement enters secretively, tentatively; ethereal scale passages contend with aggressive responses. Then, following gradually more optimistic trills, like a door suddenly thrown open, the great fugue of the fourth movement commences. Unrestrained, outrageous, and ecstatic, the movement is not strictly a fugue. Beethoven explained that “making a fugue is no art... But fantasy also claims its right....” In the score we find the instruction “Fuga a tre voci con alcune licenze” (fugue in three voices, with some license). Some license indeed! Outbursts and eructations on an Olympian scale.