Musical mountain obscured by cloud

Two centuries on, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata is still as enigmatic and sublime as ever

Jonathan Gaisman

The future of the piano: A silhouette of Beethoven, by Schlipmann, c.1886 (©DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Beethoven’s claim to be the most important composer of classical music who ever lived rests on one particular gift: the repeated ability, manifested at each stage of his career, to reinvent or expand a conventional form and produce something quite without precedent. It is for this reason that he deserves the overused epithet revolutionary (which in truth applies to only a very small number of composers). Of all the instances in which he achieved this, even more than in the case of the Ninth Symphony, the most awe-inspiring is the so-called Hammerklavier piano sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106, written exactly 200 years ago in 1818-1819.

All the major works of Beethoven’s final years (he died in 1827) make tremendous demands upon listener as well as performer; but perhaps the Hammerklavier makes the most tremendous of all upon both. In order to listen to, as opposed merely to hear, a performance of this behemoth, it is almost as if a new set of auditory equipment is required. Like the snake which has to detach its lower jaw in order to ingest a particularly large item of prey, one finds that the existing mechanisms of musical attentiveness are simply insufficient. Alan Walker has suggested that the piece “lies somewhere in the future of the piano”. Beethoven himself had an intuition of this futurity when he said that the sonata would be keeping pianists busy in 50 years’ time. He was right: its anatomy bears no more relationship to the ordinary piano sonata than the inflated and muscle-bound body-builder’s resembles the average physique.

It is therefore not surprising that a common element in the significant literature that has gathered around the sonata is a certain semi-coherent breathlessness. Here for example is Burnett James:

This is the crux, the key, the pinnacle — call it what you choose so long as it is seen as the greatest of all piano sonatas . . . a solitary peak, a lonely testament at once as heroic and as desolate as the composer during the years when it was conceived and written down.

 And again:

It is a huge work by any standards, a vast musical structure nominally (more than nominally) in four movements yet far surpassing in integrated expressive range and structural cohesion any conventional four-movement composition, even one of Beethoven’s own . . . These certainly are large claims; but they have to be made because they are true . . . this is one of the towering testaments to the human mind and spirit.

The massiveness of Op 106 is not anticipated in any preceding work. True it is that Beethoven had already burst the boundaries of at least two other genres, in the case of the Eroica symphony and the Kreutzer violin sonata, each of which was both longer and more dramatic than any preceding example, by Beethoven or anybody else. This however does not mean that the sonata is altogether unforeshadowed. In the comparatively obscure piano sonata No. 11, Op 22 (1800), which is also in B flat, there are elements of anticipation, most obviously the preoccupation with thirds (further explained below). A nearer comparator — more of a preparation — is another piece published under the rubric Sonate für das Hammerklavier — the immediately preceding sonata No 28, Op 101 (1816).

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.

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.” 

The logic of this progression eventually brings the piece to the unexpected and unorthodox key of B major. Adjacent notes are the most harmonically distant from each other, and the presence of this tonality of B both at the heart of the development and then in a shattering assertion of the opening subject in B minor, after the recapitulation is supposed to have re-established the home key of B flat major, is profoundly destabilising. Throughout the sonata, Beethoven exploits this tension between adjacent notes and often expresses it in trills, which in his late music move far beyond their original, merely ornamental function and become melodic and even structural elements.

The ensuing scherzo literally plays with the idea of the ascending and descending thirds which were a matter of life and death in the opening movement. Rosen calls this second movement a parody of the first. But at the heart of this tiny piece, deliberately in miniature amid the gigantism of the other three, is a fantastical passage in which after a bizarre series of quavers and rests full of suppressed violence there is a prestissimo scale through six octaves ending on a diabolical figure on the harmony of the minor ninth that is neither trill nor shake, but a kind of demented laugh. This little episode yields an insight into the strange and isolated nature of Beethoven’s sense of humour in his last period, and anticipates the scherzos of the string quartets Opp 130 and 135. Likewise bleakly humorous is the violent outbreak of unvarnished fortissimo B naturals at the end of the movement as if to mock the architectural complexity of the B flat/B natural conflict in the first.

The slow movement returns to a mood of utmost seriousness, but it is far more than that. It has been called “a mausoleum of humanity’s deepest sorrows, the apotheosis of pain . . . for which there is no remedy”. (Christoph Eschenbach extends his performance of this adagio to an indulgent 25 minutes; this near-halving of the indicated tempo, a flowing quaver = 92, is not necessary to convey its ambience.) The colours are those of the cloudy last works of Titian, for example of the Pietà in the Accademmia of Venice, the figures in which adopt poses of frozen grief or raw despair. The movement begins on a chord of F sharp minor, which is its key — an unusual tonality in any event and all the more so here, until we remember that F sharp is a third apart from B flat — but at the last minute the composer decided to preface this opening chord by two harmonically ambiguous rising unisons, that match the rising thirds with which the other movements start. This afterthought was one which greatly impressed Tovey: “they leave it to the full chord [that follows] to reveal what they mean” and “constitute one of the most profound thoughts in all music”. Once again the piece is in sonata form, though after a relatively short development, in which the thirds and sixths seem explicitly to predict the opening of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the recapitulation is so heavily varied as to be almost unrecognisable. The ornamentation of the melodic line puts the listener in mind of Chopin. Beethoven is firmly a classical composer, but this is a movement which in many respects speaks the language of the Romantic piano literature of the later 19th century.

It would be unthinkable to proceed directly from a movement such as this to the concluding fugue. Thirty years earlier, Mozart knew that, after the Gethsemane which he had portrayed in the slow movement of his G minor string quintet, he must resort to the unusual expedient of an introduction by way of bridge to the finale proper, in order to grant the listener time for recovery from what he has just heard. In the case of the Hammerklavier, it would be impossible to emerge from the experience of the adagio directly into the light. A faint parallel exists with Beethoven’s own ninth symphony (1822-1824), where there is an extended instrumental introduction to the choral finale; as the bass soloist explains on his first, startling vocal entry, it is necessary that the purely instrumental music heard earlier in the symphony be rejected in order to make imaginative space for the singing of Schiller’s ode, which is the main business of the last movement. In the introduction to the finale of Op 106, Beethoven looks forward to what is to come, not back to the adagio. The free fantasy which retrieves us from its depths begins quietly and passes through many keys in its improvisatory quest to find its way back to B flat, and in doing so experiments with various forms of 18th-century counterpoint (there are two near-quotations from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) — as if its function is actually to will into existence the succeeding fugue.

This last movement is once more written in a very fast tempo. It has always terrified pianists. To the problems of physical execution and intellectual grasp are added those of memorisation: 19th-century champions of the sonata, such as Miss Arabella Goddard, could play the other three movements from memory, but were supplied with the score of the finale. There is in certain pedantic quarters a prejudice against fugues, which are seen as an archaic form of “academic” exercise, being placed within the more dramatic forms of sonata, quartet or symphony, but as Tovey says in relation to Beethoven’s late fugues, “a dramatic force at white heat underlies them”. He compares the presence of a fugue in a sonata with a playwright inserting a trial scene into a play: while this proceeds in accordance with its own internal rules, nothing else can happen and nothing else matters; in the right hands, however, such scenes can be the most exciting of all.

For Philip Barford, this collision between the analytic procedures of fugue and the synthetic dialectic of harmonic contrasts that is the essence of the sonata principle is like the wrenching of iron bars. This movement indeed conveys an impression of overwhelming intellectual force; Beethoven employs every learned device of fugue-writing: he turns the long and complex main subject upside down (inversion), he slows it down (augmentation) and changes its character; he ratchets up the tension by accelerating the timing of its entries (stretto). His most spectacular trick (though the hardest to appreciate aurally) is the “cancrizan” (crabs for these purposes, like those in Hamlet, being deemed to walk backwards, not sideways), in which the subject is played back-to-front. At a comparable moment of absolute mastery in the Prelude to Meistersinger, Wagner signalled his contrapuntal genius with a single stroke on the triangle; it by now comes as no surprise that Beethoven announces his own supreme achievement in the key of B minor.

Igor Levit: Today a performance of the Hammerklavier is no longer a rarity (©Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The most catastrophic moment in the fugue comes when the composer deploys his usual device of foreshortening thematic material, here by separating the leap of a tenth followed by a trill, with which the fugue subject begins, and setting in quick succession repeated statements of this fragment, in both rising and falling forms (harmonised moreover in tenths). Once the ear is attuned to the language of the movement, this is one of the most exciting moments in all music. It is followed by a stunned silence, a moment of respite, and then the storm gathers again for a final few pages, before at last, in a series of titanic rising trills (followed by falling tenths), the movement somehow finds a resolution. In performance, it is almost invariably the final utterance in a concert programme, and should not be followed by an encore. Sviatoslav Richter once broke this rule — but his encore was to play the last movement again.

Early reaction to Beethoven’s late piano works was often either indifferent or baffled. The most famous case of incomprehension was one of the earliest: it was his secretary Anton Schindler who asked the composer why he had not written a third movement for his last sonata, the entirely sufficient two-movement Op 111, a question definitively answered over a century later by Thomas Mann in the finest piece of writing about real music in fiction ever penned. (Beethoven’s dismissive reply to Schindler’s question was that he had had no time.) Among early notices of the Hammer-klavier is an 1835 article published in the French periodical Le Pianiste, covering Opp 106, 109 and 110 (it appears that the great Op 111 was beneath notice.)

In these three works — 106 in particular — the musical sense is almost as clear as in a philosophical treatise of Kent [sic] . . . there is no doubt that Beethoven — who was more deaf than ever at this time — did not understand himself what he wrote; but his infirmity, so fatal to a musician, had perhaps rendered his intuitive sense more delicate, and enabled him to see nebulae which we cannot distinguish. In general, his last works are imbued with the sort of mysticism that is impenetrable to the common people.

Perhaps the first unequivocally positive review of the work was by Berlioz, reporting on a performance given the following year by the 24-year-old Liszt in Paris: he had

explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him . . . It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood, has shown that he is a pianist of the future. Honour to him!

The first recorded English reaction to the work comes in a delightful 1839 anonymous review in The Musical World of a performance given by Ignaz Moscheles:

After a very poor song from Hummel’s Matilda — but sung in good style by Mrs H Burnet — we heard, for the first time a grand sonata of four movements by Beethoven, op 106 . . . It would be idle presumption to pronounce on such a sonata at a single hearing; more especially as the attention was frequently distracted by the wonderful difficulties of execution — extravagancies that out-heroded Herod — overcome by the performer. We can however say, that if it be any test of excellence to preserve the sense of hearing, in an almost painful state of activity, from the commencement to the end — making everyone wonder what would come next; and now and then intermixing, though in wild, abstracted, other-world sort of style, genuine beauties of modulation, or melodious phrases, that touched the feelings; — if such be a test of excellence — then there is much to be developed by a full and perfect acquaintance with this work.

Moscheles it was who, despite his formidable technique, halved the speed of the opening allegro by the simple expedient of editing a published version which altered the minim in the tempo indication to a crotchet. For a time, this half-speed became the convention, and it led to a letter of protest to the same magazine in 1857, noting that since the movement required “much fire and animation”, it was “extremely stupid to poke along so slowly”, notwithstanding that, as the writer observed pointedly, “there are, doubtless, innumerable difficulties shirked by taking the time so slow.”

Misunderstandings persisted through the 19th century: Nietzsche in Human, All too Human implied that the sonata required orchestration, describing it as “only an unsatisfactory piano arrangement of a symphony”. Later, Felix Weingartner actually produced an orchestral version. These were elementary errors of taste and understanding, given the evidently pianistic nature of the writing, and the centrality to the entire timbre of the work of the virtuosic demands made on the performer. But from our vantage point 200 years after its composition, it is a mistake to underestimate the difficulties experienced by even the most musical minds in comprehending Beethoven’s creation.

Over time, the piece gradually entered the regular repertoire, but it was not till the mid-20th century that more than a handful of players were capable of meeting its demands. Now a performance of the Hammerklavier is no longer a rarity. Conservatory students learn it as a matter of course, and young Turks seem to make light of its difficulties in their first recordings. Contrasting performances have in the last few weeks been given in London by the underrated Aleksandar Madžar and the overrated Evgeny Kissin. Master pianists may be seen playing it by the dozen on YouTube. But the sonata can never be the victim of over-exposure. Like the late quartets, the Diabelli variations and the Missa Solemnis, it is a work the whole of which can never be comprehended at a single sitting, a massif always partially obscured by cloud. It has no musical offspring, and is its own last word.

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