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Piano Sonata No.29 in B Flat Major Op.106, 'Hammerklavier'

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat major, Op.106 “Hammerklavier”

The Sonata in B flat major was begun in Vienna in the autumn of 1817, and the first two movements were completed by the following spring. The remaining two movements were written at Modling during the summer of 1818 and finished in the late autumn. The sonata was published in Vienna in September 1819 by Artaria, and duly dedicated to Beethoven’s friend, pupil and patron Archduke Rudolph of Austria (who was also the dedicatee of many of Beethoven’s earlier works, including Fidelio and the last two piano concertos, and for whose installation as Archbishop of Olmutz Beethoven specially wrote the Missa Solemnis)

The gigantic sonata-form first movement has the two traditional thematic groups, but each of these is so complex that only the barest outline can be given here. The most salient feature of the first subject group is the imperious figure with which the sonata opens, but its lyrical answer is scarcely less important. The second subject group begins with some 60 bars further on with an unobtrusive wisp of a tune that, rhythmically at any rate, is related to the lyrical part of the first subject.

The development section is of extreme ingenuity and complexity. Its texture is largely contrapuntal -–there is a long episode in the style of a double fugue in which the subjects are introduced in close canon, thereby producing an effect of immense concentration and drive; the insistent rhythm of the opening bars underlies the whole passage. The recapitulation brings many important changes, particularly in keyboard layout, and the movement ends with a coda which, although relatively short for a late Beethoven movement on such a scale as this one, makes a powerful impression.

The next movement is the first scherzo that Beethoven included in any of his sonatas after Op.31 No.2 (1802). The Scherzo itself (in B flat major) is based entirely on a short, playful phrase that is constantly repeated in various positions; the “trio” is in the tonic minor and flows smoothly, with octaves and triplet figures alternating between the two hands, and leads to a repeat of the Scherzo by way of a freakish Presto. This movement is followed by an Adagio sostenuto in F sharp minor, of a scale and intensity that is unequalled anywhere in Beethoven except in the last string quartets.

Put in the briefest and most prosaic terms, the movement can be said to be in sonata form, with two main subjects both of which are stated at great length. The second of them (in D major) is particularly remarkable for its deep, bell-like first phrase (played by the right hand in the bass) and its high, soaring answer, and for the triplet figuration with which it is subsequently enriched. A development section based on the first subject is followed by a recapitulation in which both themes – but especially the first – are richly embellished, and a coda that acts almost as a second development, and brings both themes together.

An extended, fantasia-like introduction in various contrasting tempi, and with no fewer than five written-out key changes, serves to lead from the F sharp major chord on which the Adagio ends to the sonata’s tonic key for the beginning of the finale itself. This is an enormous three-part fugue, with a dashing main subject incorporating a trill and a flourish of semiquavers, and a more solid counter-subject. Inversion, cancrizans, stretto and every other contrapuntal device are used in the course of the movement which, again, ends with a mighty coda. If any composition by Beethoven demonstrates his triumph over the “imperfections and limitations of the piano”, this sonata is surely it.

Copyright Robin Golding


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