Beethoven Unleashed

Here’s a sonata that will challenge pianists and that people will be able to play in 50 years.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Now that Beethoven was writing for himself, he undertook to compose a piano sonata of such incredible power and complexity that it can only be described as symphonic. What became his 29th sonata for piano remains at the very summit of music written for piano, not only because of its technical difficulty, but because of the significant interpretive choices Beethoven demands of his soloist. No work of music more challenges the body and the brain in equal measure. To get the most out of this score, the pianist must solve the many riddles Beethoven buries within the music, making key choices as to tempo and coloration.

This is such a formidable challenge that, upon publication, no one dared perform it–the first public performance would be in 1836, nearly a decade after Beethoven’s death. The site? The Salle Erard in Paris. And the pianist who dared scale Mount Olympus to confront Beethoven face-to-face? Only the greatest pianist of all-time: Franz Liszt.

Before diving into the music, a short comment on the sonata’s common sobriquet: Hammerklavier. Despite the wonderful visual that name conjures, the formal title of the sonata is Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier. The hammerklavier as its German name implies is a keyboard instrument that uses a hammer to play the strings–a fortepiano. Beethoven’s title reveals two things. First, that the era of the harpsichord is dead (sorry, Gert–we’ll find you again in the 1960s). And second, his inspiration–a new piano from the British Broadwood firm. Beethoven’s new piano provided the composer with a greater range–six octaves and 73 keys in all (the modern piano, seven octaves and 88 keys would not emerge until the 1880s). Although Beethoven could no longer hear his new instrument, he fully understood its capabilities and, perhaps, how the instrument would continue to evolve.

Back to the music: Part of the challenge here is determining the correct tempo. Beethoven uniquely included a metronome marking of “half note = 138” in the score, rendering the first movement all but unplayable, even two centuries later. This has led, perhaps more than any other of Beethoven’s compositions, to the myth that Beethoven’s metronome was “faulty”. Nonsense. Pianist Andras Schiff, arguably the foremost interpreter of Beethoven’s music on the scene today, did the only sensible thing and examined the metronome himself. That’s right–despite generations of pianists and musicologists peddling the “faulty metronome” story, no one had actual gone and tested the thing. And it’s not like the metronome is hard to find. It resides in the greatest music hall on the planet, Vienna’s Musikverein. Spoiler alert: It works just fine. So what are we to make of Beethoven’s notation? Personally, I think that this is one of the many things left open to pianist to explore–but in doing so, it is simply wrong to reject Beethoven’s notation as “wrong” or “faulty”–you must reckon with Beethoven on his terms.

To the music: Like may of his symphonies, the first movement opens with a series of thundering B-Flat minor chords.

From here, Beethoven takes us on a harmonic adventure, first to D major (a third higher) and then to G major (a third lower). And this sets up the predominant harmonic theme of the entire sonata. Since John Dunstable, the triad had formed the foundation upon which Western music had been constructed. In this sonata, Beethoven explores the entirety of that mighty edifice through the repetition of thirds. In nearly every bar, we hear thirds. Rising thirds. Descending thirds. And tenths (extended thirds). Yet this composition is by no means conventional. As I have written previously, Beethoven is doing a gut renovation of the musical landscape from the inside out and the key to this remarkable sonata is to pay attention to what Beethoven is doing tonally. He starts to explore unconventional tone pairings, siding up B natural to a B flat, which creates a very unsettling feeling. These two tones, and their respective domiants in F and F#, clash repeatedly throughout the first movement. Beethoven resolves this conflict in favor of B flat, conventionally confirming the tonic structure of the sonata. How the pianist reveals this harmonic struggle is what separates a great performance from a simply competent one.

We know by now that Beethoven is taking us repeatedly between dominant and tonic by thirds, so we continue to expect that throughout the sonata. But it is these unconventional side-steps to distant tonal landscapes that anticipate the great harmonic revolutions of the later 19th century. To avoid completely shocking us, Beethoven cleverly disguises a lot of what he’s exploring here. In the Classical Period, trills had been used solely as ornamentation–often by an improving keyboardist. Beethoven, however, recognizes a more utilitarian purpose for the trill, which he uses to modulate between far flung keys. We are predisposed to consider a trill as something beautiful and so adjust to unusual harmonic relationship through these repetitive devices.

While each of the four movmements that comprise Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata are worthy of attention, let’s skip the second (a scherzo) and the third (an adagio that has been called “a mausoleum of collective sorrow”) to focus on the remarkable finale. Here Beethoven gives us, in full, the various elements he would explore in his Late Period. Most importantly, at the heart of this remarkable movement lies a fugue–which Beethoven notates as Fuga a tre voci con alcuna licenze (“fugue in three voices with some license”). Beethoven had been studying Bach, primarily in the library of his patron, the Archduke Rudolf. Interest in the old master had been on the rise and publishers had reissued Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, Goldberg Variations, B Minor Mass and The Art of the Fugue. Copies of the latter two were found in Beethoven’s possession after his death. Bringing back counterpoint to Western music reintroduced some of the harmonic complexities that had been lost during the Classical Period, but Beethoven’s fugues are decidedly unlike and far more forceful than Bach’s.

Beethoven also breaks apart chords–the opening of the movment is simply a deconstructed chord–while looking for usual harmonics based on altered overtones. In doing so, the doors for the harmonic revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries have opened. The classical structure, built as a preconceived journey from harmonic conflict to harmonic resolution, is beginning to crumble around the new and glorious structure that Beethoven has created, a world where harmonic galaxies can be explored without an obvious plan or pattern. Stravinsky called this movement “exhausting and inexhaustible”; it ranks among the most daring and complex music Beethoven ever composed.

Two years before his untimely death in 1985, Emil Gilels recorded one of the more introspective interpretations of Hammerklavier. Gilels is, for me, the best interpreter of Beethoven and I have long consider this recording to be Gilels’ very best. But it is not definitive. The genius of Hammerklavier is that it cannot be reduced to a single definitive interpretation. It takes a great pianist to master its technical demands. But if you are able, Beethoven shows remarkable generosity of spirit, allowing the artist to truly share equal billing with him.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Op. 106, Hammerklavier:

And yet, having listened to more than two dozen recordings over the last few weeks, I now find Gilels’ version to be almost painfully slow–some of less generous spirit might say ponderous in the extreme. Schiff makes a compelling case for respecting Beethoven’s notations on tempo, both intellectually (are we really to second guess the greatest composer in history?) and, ultimately, musically. In Schiff’s hands, the Hammerklavier seems more alive and vital–and much more revolutionary. Gilels takes nearly 50 minutes to traverse the same score that Schiff dispenses with in about just over 42 minutes. Here is Schiff live at Wigmore Hall in London performing the Hammerklavier, but I also highly recommend his most recent studio recording of the sonata.

History records that over the course of the last 15 years of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven composed only one symphony, his Ninth. This, in my view is wrong. In his Opus 106, Beethoven composed what should be called his “Symphony No. 9 in B-Flat Major, for Hammerklavier”.