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This insufficiently-known piece is a work of exceptional interest in its own right, for several reasons: somewhat in the manner of a Möbius strip, it becomes increasingly clear as one listens that the sonata has no true beginning, or rather begins in its own middle; the structure (like the adjacent cello sonata Op 102/1) is highly experimental; the scherzo presages the dotted marches performed as if by toy soldiers characteristic of Schumann. However, the main interest for present purposes lies in the contrapuntal and fugal textures which dominate the finale. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see this piece (and the last movement of the cello sonata Op 102/2) as evidencing the forces that were compelling Beethoven in the direction of the fugal finale as an overwhelming formal conclusion.

The Hammerklavier followed a long period of relative silence on the part of the composer. Although in fact this interval contains three works of the highest quality (in Opp 101 and 102), there are only three; and it adds to the mystique of the Hammerklavier that it emerges from — and so manifestly reflects — the accumulation of extreme internal pressures. It is possible, as Robert Kahn has speculated, that Beethoven was for at least some of this period in the grip of a serious depression: in 1817, he wrote to his friend Zmeskall: “God help me, I consider myself as good as lost.” The response which the Hammerklavier represents to these dark and quiescent years is indeed heroic. Now the heroic idiom is not new in Beethoven’s music, but whereas in earlier examples one can discern exultant (the third symphony) or defiant heroism (the fifth), there is now an elevated and metaphysical aspect which is new. It justifies Busoni’s 1920 description of “the subservience of virtuosity to the Idea” in Beethoven’s music. The nature of that idea eludes verbal description, but close to the heart of it is a chronic sense of friction. At the risk of sounding as breathless as James, it may be said that whereas in earlier works of Beethoven the music appears to struggle against an external force, in the case of Op 106 both that which is struggled against and the subject who struggles are locked together, like Laocoön, within the music.

A principal means by which this conflict is conveyed is the singular focus on the interval of the third, i.e. two notes either three semitones apart (a minor third) or four (a major third). (Thus, the first two notes of “While shepherds watched their flocks” are a major third apart; the first two notes of “Greensleeves” — “Alas my love” — are separated by a minor third.) Every movement of the sonata is permeated by the composer’s obsessive use of thirds, and this obsession manifests itself in three principal ways: first, harmonically — in chords; second, in terms of melodic intervals (often in great chains of successive thirds, sometimes inverted to a sixth (a third upside-down), or expanded to a tenth, which is an octave plus a third). Last, and most strikingly, Beethoven uses thirds architecturally, in order to map the scheme of key changes within a movement, and in doing do departs radically from the conventional organisational principles which he as much as others had tended previously to observe.

The ubiquitous presence of thirds in all four movements is not intended to create a simple echo or a first order thematic unity throughout the piece, by contrast with the sort of cyclical effect which is found in later composers’ keyboard music (starting with Schubert’s Wanderer fantasy; Liszt’s piano sonata is another important example). This point was memorably conveyed by Donald Tovey, who is at his best in writing about this work:

The themes should stand entirely on their own individual characters. The separate movements of a [Beethoven] sonata lose their own momentum and achieve but a flaccid and precarious unity if they try to live by taking in each other’s thematic washing.
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