Top 5 Sonatas from the Classical Period: #1

#1: Beethoven – Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major “Hammerklavier,” Op. 106

From a listener’s perspective, the Hammerklavier is a novel of a sonata to get lost in. From a performer’s perspective, it’s a mountain that you either observe from a distance or set about conquering. Knowing my limitations, I had considered learning Op. 101, also featuring the word Hammerklavier in its description, since it’s sort of a beta version of Op. 106 in some of its structural ideas and in its fugal finale.

Why is this the greatest classical sonata? It’s a combination of factors. First, the music is wonderful, genuinely satisfying on both emotional and intellectual levels. Second, this is Beethoven’s love letter to his instrument; he seemed determined throughout to exploit the full pitch register of the instrument, the full dynamic range, and the maximum textural capabilities of two hands. Third, he created a work that still, exactly two hundred years later, serves as one of the ultimate peaks of piano virtuosity. And in addition to all these achievements, the piece shatters all kinds of barriers in sonata form, extending the implications of what each standard movement could be and pointing the way forward for all kinds of Romantic developments.

Beethoven opens the sonata with two festive gestures, then retreats to some quietly pristine voice-leading. This summarizes two important worlds explored in the movement, and indeed the full piece: thick pianistic chords and contrapuntal polyphony. Though the counterpoint may be a nod to Baroque keyboard composers, Beethoven is already showing his transcendence of the style by carrying the material way up into the upper register of the piano. He goes all the way up to the second-highest C! That hammerklavier had better be tuned. After the return of some hammered-out chords, Beethoven reaches an extended F Major cadence that once again shoots to the stratosphere, while plumbing the depths at the same time. More conscious exploration of register. These exaggerated treatments of familiar Classical tropes show Beethoven in classic jesting mood. By not taking the task too seriously, he allows a certain lightness to prevail in this movement, even as the player struggles with the physical challenges of the material. The only hint of darkness in the exposition is in the cantabile theme over triplets that appears right before the end, but even then, it’s gone before it barely appeared, quickly transfigured into a major-mode variant with a breezy trill.

The development is where Beethoven rolls up his sleeves and starts to reveal even more ambition. He transforms the opening gesture into a fugal idea, gathering intensity in a four-voice texture and reaching a climax on giant diminished chords that crash into B Major for a restatement of the little theme from the end of the exposition. A transition back to the tonic of B-flat Major for the recapitulation comes as a relief, but Beethoven is not done exploring remote keys. The hammered-out theme returns in G-flat Major, and then he leads us into a statement of the opening in B minor! In a final sly acknowledgement of the virtuosity at hand, Beethoven takes a motive in parallel broken octaves from the exposition, one of the most finger-aching hurdles in the movement, and chooses to extend it to twelve measures.

It’s easy to forget that scherzo means “joke,” but the scherzo of this piece reminds us frequently and emphatically. It’s really pretty funny. The main motive of the movement basically sounds like a mocking echo of the first movement theme, skipping along. Less than a minute into the music, we seem to be entering some kind of contrasting moody Trio, but there’s no real theme to speak of, just octaves outlining B-flat minor and D-flat Major triads over running triplets. The lack of content is already funny, but then comes this frantic little presto section, ending on a really melodramatic diminished tremolo that sounds straight out of an opera buffa. After all that, the main theme returns as if nothing happened. Two more jokes land before the end: a fight between B-flat and B-natural octaves, and a very abrupt ending in the middle of a phrase. This wonderfully jesting movement is a perfect example of Beethoven’s mood of höhe komische – high humor. The composer’s quicksilver wit illuminates musical and psychological truths just as well as a cathartic Adagio. Speaking of which…

This Adagio may have been the longest sonata slow movement ever composed at its time. Performances today can range from fourteen to twenty minutes. In my many humble attempts to sightread through it, I admit I found my concentration flagging at times, not just from the sheer length, but also from the sustained atmosphere of despair, broken up only by some meditative, quasi-hopeful moments. It’s an immense statement. Pianist Wilhelm Kempff called it “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote.” Beethoven shows several progressive developments here: many pedaling indications between una corda and tutte le corde to delineate the sound world of different sections, daringly slow moments where chords seem to hang in the air on their way to some revelation, and, most importantly, a recapitulation of the main theme in a unique texture that anticipates some later developments in Romantic music.

The opening draws us into a quiet, stilled world of sorrow, una corda from the outset. Most of the opening section is stated in solemn chorale texture, which contrasts starkly with the first big musical peak, marked con grand espressione. The bass sounds at first like a familiar oom-pah-pah, but the right hand seems to enter early, creating instability. Beethoven’s marking con grand espressione is entirely appropriate for these soaring, desperate gestures. It feels like Beethoven has been waiting to unleash this expression of pain. After the outburst, a ruminative section features a descending-fourth motive that seems to point to the Arietta of Op. 111 to come. Maybe that’s reading too much into it; Beethoven uses so many musical building blocks as material that one could make a case for lots of cross-references.

One of the most remarkable moments in this movement, and in the whole piece, is a lengthy series of wandering, modulating chords, built around the outline of a descending minor third. This is one of the spots that a critic could call ponderous or indulgent, but it’s wonderfully free and poetic, meditating on the opening theme and seeming to open up into hope. But all of this harmonic struggle is for naught: the music plunges down and up through a wave of diminished triads to arrive on a minor-key recapitulation of the main theme, now f and decorated with twisting right-hand figurations (the Romantic texture I mentioned above). In this iteration, the theme seems even more despairing and claustrophobic. After this climactic wave subsides, we’re still only about halfway through the movement. Where is there even left to go after such an emotional high point? If we consider this climax an A’, Beethoven essentially gives us an altered repeat of each section and another recapitulation of A (which sneakily contains a bit of B). So he creates a giant ABCDA’B’C’D’A’’ form. These repeated sections provide enough additional insight and alterations to make the trip worthwhile. In a big surprise, the quiet descending-fourth theme from C/C’ becomes agitated and leads up to the final outburst before the recapitulation. This emotional journey ends on a series of placid F-sharp major chords, approached from diminished sevenths so that they seem to anticipate a further resolution to B major or minor that never comes.

[At this point I realized I’ve used buckets of digital ink for my thoughts on this piece. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about Beethoven without getting carried away, quite like Hans von Bülow in his editorial remarks on the Beethoven sonatas. I’ll try to stay concise for the final movement.]

As in the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven amplifies the suspense before the concluding movement with a series of false starts. The opening gesture, a quick series of F’s running up the keyboard, hearkens back to the first movement, reminding us of how far we’ve traveled since then. It’s also sort of a humorously clinical way to declare a new key. Several chunks of musical material enter the stage and disappear. The last of these is a true shocker: an Allegro, forte contrapuntal G-sharp minor idea that feels like the real start of something big and intense. But then that too abruptly cuts off. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have liked to hear the full-movement version of that idea. In a final move to delay the start of the movement as long as possible, Beethoven gives us a poetic wave that crests and descends, arriving at a quiet series of chords with bass punctuations. This sequence is sure to keep any listener on edge. It seems to acknowledge all of the harmonic wandering of the previous movement and in this introduction, finally focusing on one big crescendo and accelerando. We move from A to B minor, G to C, F…where are we going? Then a big climax on A! Then a sneaky turn back to F, resolving to B-flat, and boom. We’re back in the tonic of the sonata and off and running with a hair-raising fugal subject. Given the length of the introduction, you’d expect the fugue to be long and involved, and it delivers. And yet, as significant as the rest of the movement is, the introduction is just as important. I remember watching a Daniel Barenboim masterclass in which a student played this movement and Barenboim focused his whole lesson on the introduction.

But yes, the fugue. Another great late Beethoven tradition: grappling with the struggle toward resolution with thorny, complicated counterpoint. It’s honestly pretty hard to talk about how it all progresses. Better just to listen to it, absorb the wild textures and mad-genius inventions and then remember that he was mostly deaf while he wrote it.

Clearly I can’t say enough about the significance of this piece. Beethoven gave himself a challenge to write the ultimate virtuoso sonata, and succeeded by leaps and bounds. Few outer movements are more energetic and exciting, few Adagios are more profound, and few scherzos are funnier. But above all, in this sonata Beethoven laid out a deeply personal journey from struggle to triumph, creating an emotional parallel to the struggle of the pianist mastering the piece, and crafting a sort of dialogue with the listener in the fourth movement’s introduction, breaking the fourth wall to ask which resolution seemed appropriate. All of these factors elevate the very meaning of what this tried-and-true form could be.

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