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The Hammerklavier is of incredible technical difficulty. Whereas the amateur pianist can fumble through most of Beethoven’s sonatas (though not Op 101) in the expectation of making a sound which, however haltingly, corresponds in some way to the music he knows so well, in the present case he need not bother. At every point, there are obstacles — seemingly gratuitously introduced, but in fact integral to the conception — which make this piece inaccessible to all except the steeliest mind and fingers. There is a YouTube video of the piece which portrays not the artist at the keyboard, but the successive pages of the score. It is worth searching out (the pianist is Igor Levit) and the viewer derives from seeing as well as hearing exactly what is going on the same sense of awe, of exhilaration — and relief that somebody else is having to do it — that is experienced when watching a film showing the ascent of some particularly challenging mountain. It is perhaps as a result of this Himalayan, sublime character that András Schiff has observed that the sonata is more admired than loved. These are elastic terms in the present context, but it is a common experience that, as acquaintance with the piece grows, the more fascinated and the more incredulous the listener becomes.

The nickname Hammerklavier may seem apt to the rhythmical and percussive subject with which the sonata opens, but this is a coincidence. The word is just a synonym for pianoforte, and its use reflects Beethoven’s increasing resort in this phase of his life to German, rather than Italian titles and musical directions. It is not merely a historical curiosity that the opening theme is a transcription of an unfinished cantata in honour of the composer’s patron Archduke Rudolph which begins, predictably enough, “Vivat vivat Rudolfus”. This fact informs the long-standing controversy which surrounds this first movement, namely at what speed to play it. The metronome marking which Beethoven has set for it is an impossible minim = 138. Artur Schnabel said that great music is music which is better than it can be played, but in the case of the Hammerklavier, the first movement can barely be played at all, at the speed which Beethoven requires. Nor can the tempo indication just be ignored, since this is the only one of the 32 piano sonatas for which Beethoven gave metronome markings. Schnabel was perhaps the first recorded artist to try to honour Beethoven’s intention, and the result is often an unembarrassed muddle (which is not to denigrate a wonderful performance). But there are many notable pianists — Backhaus, Fischer, Kempff, Arrau, Gilels, Brendel, Barenboim — who play with a majestic grandeur which perhaps takes its cue from the stately words of the cantata, and which bears no obvious relation to even the spirit of the instruction given.

At whatever speed the first movement is attacked, the listener is struck by the way in which ideas follow each other with incredible swiftness and contrast. There can be no better example of the irrelevance of chronological time when listening to music: it is actually meaningless to report that this movement lasts about 10-12 minutes, since one is not in the realm of chronological time when listening to it. There are first movements by Mozart (the string quintet in C for example) which last longer, but the distances traversed in Beethoven’s allegro are of a different order. With deference to James (who says that “all attempts to trap the compositions of Beethoven's last years of the butterfly net of sonata form [are] really to put them in the chloroform bottle, showing that one does not understand form or Beethoven at all”), the piece is actually in a far more recognisable sonata form (save in its tonal relations) than Beethoven was to adopt, for example, in his final string quartets. This much at least is familiar; but not much else is. For example, as Charles Rosen writes in The Classical Style: “The development section [of the first movement] . . . uses sequences of descending thirds as almost its only method of construction and concentrates on them with a determination and fury previously unheard in music.” 

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