Piano Sonata No. 29 (Beethoven)

Piano Sonata No. 29 (Beethoven)

Ludwig van Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major", opus 106, known as the "Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier", or more simply as the "Hammerklavier", is widely considered to be one of the most important works of the composer's third period and one of the great piano sonatas. It is considered Beethoven's single most difficult composition for the piano, with the possible exception of the Diabelli Variations, and it remains one of the most challenging solo works in the entire piano repertoire to this day.


The sonata was written primarily from the summer of 1817 to the late autumn of 1818, towards the end of a fallow period in Beethoven's compositional career, and represents the spectacular emergence of many of the themes that were to recur in Beethoven's late period: the reinvention of traditional forms, such as sonata form; a brusque humor; and a return to pre-classical compositional traditions, including an exploration of modal harmony and reinventions of the fugue within classical forms.

The "Hammerklavier" also set precedents for the length of solo compositions (it runs for approximately 37 minutes, if the tempo is adhered to exactly); while orchestral works such as symphonies and concerti had often contained movements of 15 or even 20 minutes for many years, few single movements in solo literature had such a span before the Hammerklavier's Adagio sostenuto.

The sonata's name comes from Beethoven's insistence on using German rather than Italian words for musical terminology ("Hammerklavier" literally means "hammer-keyboard" while "pianoforte" means "soft-loud") . It comes from the title page of the work, which says "Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier", i.e. "Grand sonata for piano". While it does not represent Beethoven's own title (the more sedate "Sonata Op. 101 in A" has the same description), the name has remained in common use.


The piece contains four movements, a structure often used by Beethoven, and imitated by contemporaries such as Schubert, in contrast to the more usual three (or two) movements of Mozart and Haydn sonatas. It plays for an average of 45 minutes. In addition to the thematic connections within the movements and the use of traditional Romantic formal structures, Charles Rosen has described how much of the piece is organized around the motif of a descending third (major or minor). It is perhaps the first major piano work (if not work of any instrumentation) to so thoroughly incorporate a baroque contrapuntal style (the fugue) within an originally Classical structure (the sonata form) (see fourth movement).


"Duration of roughly 10 minutes."

The first movement opens with a series of fortissimo B-flat major chords, which form much of the basis of the first subject. Another series of the same chords ushers in the more lyrical second subject, in the submediant (that is, a minor third below the tonic), G Major. The development section opens with a fughetta subject that descends continuously by thirds. The recapitulation, in keeping with Beethoven's exploration of the potentials of sonata form, avoids a full harmonic return to B-flat until long after the return to the first theme. The movement ends with a coda, the final notes one of the rare fortississimo (ƒƒƒ) passages in Beethoven's work.

cherzo: Assai vivace

"Duration of nearly 3 minutes."

The brief second movement includes a great variety of harmonic and thematic material. The scherzo's theme - which has been described as a parody of the first movement's first subject - is at once playful, lively, and pleasant. The trio, marked "semplice", visits the minor, but the effect is more shadowy than dramatic. Following this dark interlude, Beethoven inserts a more intense presto section in 2/4 meter, which eventually segues back to the scherzo. This time around, it is followed by a coda (with another meter change), before dying away into the third movement.

Adagio sostenuto

"Duration of between 14 and 20 minutes."

The sonata-form slow movement, centred on F-sharp minor, has been called, among other things, a "mausoleum of collective sorrow" and is notable for its ethereality and great length as a slow movement. Paul Bekker called the movement "the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy... the immeasurable stillness of utter woe".Fact|date=June 2007 Wilhelm Kempff described it as "the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote". [Karl Schumann. Beethoven's Viceroy at the Keyboard In Celebration of Wilhelm Kempff's Centenary: His 1951-1956 Recordings of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas]

Structurally, it follows traditional classical-era sonata form, but the recapitulation of the main theme is varied to include extensive figurations in the right hand that anticipate some of the techniques of romantic piano music; in "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection" [The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Ted Libbey. ISBN 0-7611-0487-9] , Ted Libbey writes, "An entire line of development...springs from this music."

Introduzione - Fuga: Allegro risoluto

"Duration of roughly 12 minutes."

The movement begins with a slow introduction that serves to transition from the third movement; to do so, it modulates from D Minor to B Major to A Major, which modulates to B-flat major for the fugue. Dominated by falling thirds in the bassline, the music three times pauses on a pedal and engages in speculative contrapuntal experimentations, in a manner foreshadowing the quotations from the first three movements of the Ninth Symphony in the opening of the fourth movement of that work. After a final modulation to B-flat major, the main substance of the movement appears: a titanic three-voice fugue in triple meter. The subject of the fugue can be divided itself into three parts: (i) a tenth leap followed by a trill to the tonic, (ii) a 7-note scale figure repeated descending by a third, and (iii) a tail semiquaver passage marked by many chromatic passing tones, whose development becomes the main source for the movement's unique dissonance. Marked "with occasional license" ("con alcune licenze"), the fugue, one of Beethoven's greatest contrapuntal achievements, as well as making incredible demands on the performer, moves through a number of contrasting sections and includes a number of "learned" contrapuntal devices, often, and significantly, wielded with a dramatic fury and dissonance inimical to their conservative and academic associations. Some examples: augmentation of the fugue theme and countersubject in a sforzando marcato at bars 96--117, the massive stretto of the tenth leap and trill which follows, a contemplative episode beginning at bar 152 featuring the subject in retrograde, leading to an exploration of the theme in inversion at bar 209. A second, contrasting idyllic subject is introduced at bar 250, which becomes a terrifying bass cantus firmus, heard against parts of the first theme. The penultimate episode investigates the implications of sounding the main subject, countersubject and their inversions simultaneously in stretto. A lengthy coda in B-flat ends the work, the tenth leap and trill rising up the B-flat scale to arrive at two conventional dominant-tonic cadences which sound nevertheless strangely unstable.

This fugue, which Stravinsky called both inexhaustible and exhausting, ranks alongside the "Große Fuge" for string quartet, Op. 133, and the "Et Vitam Venturi" fugue in the Missa Solemnis as Beethoven's most daring and extensive late explorations of the contrapuntal art.


The work, particularly the last movement, had more or less to wait until the twentieth century before its significance was realised (possibly due to the difficulty of gaining a technically competent performance). Even as progressive a musician as Wagner, who appreciated the work and fully admired the late string quartets, held reservations for what he perceived as a lack of succinctness in its composition.

In the 20th-century, Pierre Boulez's "Piano Sonata No. 2" applies a serial syntax to the playing style of a Beethoven piano sonata.


Further reading

Extensive discussion and analysis is given in Charles Rosen's book "The Classical Style" (2nd ed., 1997, New York: Norton): ISBN 0-393-31712-9).

External links

* The William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the Indiana University School of Music has posted the [http://www.dlib.indiana.edu/variations/scores/aek3910/index2.html score] for the sonata.
* For a public domain recording of this sonata visit [http://musopen.com Musopen]

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