Piano Sonata No.29

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No.29 in Bb major

Op. 106 • “Hammerklavier”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

To English speakers, the term "Hammerklavier" suggests pounding at the keyboard. Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata may have its percussive moments, but this title is simply the German word for pianoforte. In other words, the composer was simply specifying that this work absolutely had to be played on the modern keyboard with hammered strings, and that the old plucked-string harpsichord was not an option. In fact, Beethoven's last five piano sonatas all had this designation, but it became the nickname only for the mighty Op. 106. The first movement, Allegro, bursts in with a heroic proclamation, a series of grand, double-dotted chords in the manner of a Baroque overture. Soon, light cascades of notes attempt a resolution into a pretty music-box figure before the openings chords are evoked again. Beethoven lays out his basic material for this large movement in just the first couple of minutes. Almost immediately he runs through it all again with greater harmonic displacement. What follows is a contrapuntal treatment of the opening theme, prefiguring the massive fugue that will end the sonata. Beethoven's further development of his subjects runs through episodes that are alternately sparkling and pounding, punctuated by an increasingly fearsome motto of those opening chords. Halfway through the recapitulation the harmonic framework melts, and the music lands in the distant key of B minor. The sonata requires another half-hour to recover from this jolt. The ensuing Scherzo is a miniature; starting with a hunting-call figure, it falls into a minor-mode whirlpool of a trio, the effect of which the A section can't quite shake off upon its return. The gargantuan slow movement, Adagio sostenuto, drifts through a haze of harmonic instability. Beethoven marks it Appassionato e con molto sentimento, requiring an intense emotional connection between the pianist and the score. The themes, as in many of Beethoven's late slow movements, suffer from smudged outlines; rather than following a tune, one has the impression of deep stillness, a few moments of flowing but aimless movement, stillness again, and so forth. Beethoven carefully alternates fuller-sounding sections with passages marked una corda, indicating the use of the soft pedal to produce shadowy, distant musical scenes. Although the movement is officially in F sharp minor, the music wanders through the keys, placing the subsidiary idea in D major. This is the key Beethoven generally reserved for religious sentiment, and here it implies the possibility of spiritual enlightenment even in the most confusing circumstances. The last movement grows out of a Largo, a gradual return to life that slowly pulls fragmentary phrases together before erupting into a dramatic three-voice fugue. Earlier generations of pianists dismissed the fugue as unplayable (not just because of the tempo), but that is clearly an unfair assessment. True, the counterpoint is exceedingly complex, but Beethoven's mastery of the texture of supreme. At times, the music is dense and angry, even threatening (twice) to dissolve into wrathful trills. Uneven, the forward motion thins out and slightly relaxes, without, however, really flagging. When the fugue suddenly turns into a quiet, meditative canon, the contrast is tremendous. Nevertheless, it regains the original momentum, and the movement concludes with an imposing series of grand, resounding chords.

Done