Composed between 1817 and 1818. Four movements.
And here’s the biggest one of them all. The weird, titanic, gnarled, joyous, grief-stricken monster that is the Hammerklavier. Where exactly to begin?
With the interval of a 3rd, I guess. It permeates the work at every level, creating close coordination between motivic-harmonic detail, and tonal structure. The main theme of each movement is built from the same motif: a rising and then falling 3rd. In the final movement the 3rd both defies the movement in the bass in the introduction, as well as the shape of the fugue theme: a rising 3rd (10th), following by a scalar figure that is repeated, each time descending by a 3rd. Harmonically, the development section of the third movement is built on a sequence of 3rds, and the trio of the scherzo oscillates between Bb Minor and Db Major, two keys separated by a 3rd.
At an even deeper structural level, the 3rd is all-pervasive. You’d expect, in a Bb Maj sonata, that the dominant key of F would play a major role, but in 40+ minutes of music there is not a single modulation to that key. Instead, Beethoven constructs an intricate system of four keys around Bb, and returns to them time and time again. Three of them, G, D, and F#, are all separated from Bb by the interval of a third. The final, the black key of B Minor, occurs in every movement and functions as an anti-thesis to Bb Major. The struggle between these two keys dramatically frames the entire sonata (just listen to the scherzo’s ending).
There’s lots more to the Hammerklavier than the 3rd. You’ve got structural innovations: in the 1st movement’s recapitulation the return to the stable tonic is heavily delayed (by, yes, the key of B minor), and in the 2nd the development is too short, but the recapitulation varies and decorates the theme so extensively that it becomes a sort of extended development. And you’ve got the sheer contrapuntal and dramatic genius of the last movement, where a huge number of traditional contrapuntal devices are wielded with a jaggedness and fury that belies their conservative associations. It's also worth noting how contrapuntal the writing in the 1st movement is -- one of the most striking features of Beethoven's late work.
Beethoven remained embroiled in his nephew's custody battle after his brother's death, having deemed the child's mother, Johanna, unfit. She won a temporary victory after the composer admitted that she was not of noble birth, her surname prefixed with van, believed to be of Dutch origin, rather than the typical indication of nobility: von. Beethoven appealed the court's ruling and won final custody after about a year, in 1816.
That Beethoven was experiencing financial difficulties is shown in a letter to his old friend Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838). Ries lived in London, and the composer sought his help in publishing this sonata. The letter, although undated, bears a London postmark of April 6, 1819. It contains a list of corrections to the sonata and the expression of an astonishing degree of flexibility on the part of the composer to accede to the wishes of the publishers.
Circumstances are the cause of this—and so help me God—until Archduke Rudolf is in a better position, which may not be for a whole year. It is just terrible to think how all this has wiped out my income... Should the sonata not be suitable for London, could I send another one, or could I skip the Largo and immediately start the fugue... which is the last movement, or could you use the first movement and then the Adagio, and then for the third movement the Scherzo and omit the fourth with the decisive Largo and Allegro, or you could just take the first movement and the Scherzo and let them make up the whole sonata. I'll leave it to you, do what you think is best.
The sonata was published in its current form by Artaria. Beethoven is reported to have said to his publisher: Now there you have a sonata that will keep pianists busy when it is performed fifty years from now.
Artaria announced the publication of this sonata in the Wiener Zeitung on September 15, 1819. The Harmonium de Regent Institution in London registered the work at Stationers Hall em> on October 1, 1819 and again on December 24, erroneously as op. 88 and presented in two parts, the introduction and fugue being listed separately. Autographs no longer exist. Fragments of corrections for the London edition are in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, as well as in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The first edition of Artaria was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf as Cardinal Archbishop of Olmütz, a position to which the Archduke was promoted on March 9, 1820.
This sonata is the longest of the thirty-two sonatas, considered by 19th century musicians to be Beethoven's greatest sonata. However, this work has not held a place among his most popular works, possibly due to the extreme technical demands and complexity of the fugue, or the long and slow Adagio sostenuto. Fans of the work consider it undeservedly neglected, while for others, performers and audiences, it remains enigmatic and unsuccessful. The structure of the sonata follows the four-movement pattern of earlier sonatas, with the second movement being a scherzo and the third the slow movement. The finishing move is unusual in that it is a fugue. It is opened by an improvisation section in which several thematic fragments are presented as possible material, but each one is quickly abandoned. It is as if Beethoven included pages from his sketchbook in the body of the sonata itself and a musical description of the awakening of inspiration when the theme of the fugue dawned.
This is the only sonata for which the composer provided metronome markings. Those of the first two movements remain inexplicably fast in the opinion of most artists. It could be due to the demands of the publishers to show off a very difficult work for piano and that it was a matter of competitions to see who could perform it.
A focus on a descending one-third interval is prominent in the openings of the first, second, and third movements.
The opening of the first movement and the fugue subject of the fourth movement share a jump of more than an octave from the root to the third of the tone.
The similarity of ascending passages exists in the second theme area of the first movement and the second half of the fugue theme in the fourth.
The opening phrase is one of Beethoven's most famous motivic ideas. A second lyrical idea develops and is followed by a vigorous rhythmic idea that recalls the texture of the opening. The opening motif returns in B♭ major and is reasserted in D major, the dominant of the second theme area, and a two-note fragment is used to emphasize the dominant setup.
A choral-like theme in half notes serves as a closing idea. It is repeated with a sustained trill and followed by staccato chords over a broken octave bass reminiscent of the third idea of the A section.
The dotted rhythm of the opening motif returns in the first ending.
The staccato chords of the closing section open the development in C minor. At bar 136 the pitch mark changes to three flats.
A canon between two voices at bars 138 and 139 develops into a fugue texture with the entry of a third voice at bar 148 and a fourth at bar 157.
Free imitation based on the same rhythmic figure continues, sometimes presenting fragments of the figure.
The half-note theme of the closing section of the exposition opens in E minor with the pitch mark shifted to two sharps.
A segment of the second theme of the exposition appears in B major.
With another key change of tone, the dotted rhythm of the opening theme returns with imitative entrances suggesting an ever-increasing stretto.
All occurrences of the note A are with sharps in all first printed editions. However, in the sketch there are natural signs in these notes. This discrepancy has led to an unresolved dispute over which notes to use, each version suggesting its own underlying harmonic progression.
All parts of the exhibition are presented.
The second and third part of the opening, we see the theme is now in G♭ major, the course change, along with a two-sharp key change.
The opening tone mark returns and the second theme and closing themes are declared in the opening tone.
The broken octave passage is extended to form a link to the coda. It opens with a chorale-like reaffirmation of the closing theme that evolves to the accompaniment of trills in both hands. After a brief reference to the opening segment of the second theme, the rhythm of the opening motif is reworked with contrasting dynamic changes, a long diminuendo, and a final two-chord fortissimo.
Although the structure is traditional, it is very compact. Repeats are written to incorporate variety in the form of register changes and motif exchanges between the right and left hands.
A jovial intermezzo, marked presto, is inserted between the trio section and the return of the main body of the scherzo. It is improvisational in the sense that it uses no material from the main body of the movement but features a single prestissimo time signature, 112, with a grace note scale followed by a fermata, and a return to the opening tempo which features a brief tremolo in the dominant minor ninth.
The coda represents the composer's humor at its best. A musical argument between B♭, the note that represents the starting pitch, sometimes humorously written as A♯, and B♮. The tonic is served by strong dynamic ranges and the naughty note is always accompanied by soft cues, as if it's trying to sneak in a false resolution. Four bars of fortissimo octaves marked ready to finally settle the dispute, and the last four bars, marked at Tempo I, finish the piece silently with the idea of a motivic opening.
The first introductory bar was added by Beethoven just before publication.
A chorale-like opening theme in F♯ minor develops with frequent diminished sevenths either as a dominant seventh or ninth.
Two surprising harmonic changes in G major suggest a Neapolitan relationship. Each one returns to the starting tone.
A second idea in F♯ minor is announced by an accompanying step in the left hand. The theme rises in an improvised, ornamental style and is supported by a syncopated inner voice.
A transition to the second theme features a leveled imitative voice and a two-sharp pitch shift.
The second theme is in D major and features the right crossing over the left.
A closing section deviates into B major chords before returning to D major.
The development section is no more than seventeen bars long and uses the opening theme of the movement.
The pitch mark changes to three sharps in support of the key of f♯ minor.
The key signature changes to three flats in support to move past E♭ major.
The key signature changes all three flats to naturals briefly in support of a modulatory passage through movements up to F♯ major and C♯ minor.
The three-sharp opening tone mark returns along with the dominant at the opening tone of F♯ minor.
The recapitulation presents some version of all the elements of the exhibition in their order.
The opening theme is transformed, in part, by a highly ornamental passage.
Neapolitan-type harmonic changes occur.
A series of improvised gestures leads to the escape. That's like Beethoven including ideas for the last movement from his sketchbook, sharing ideas he considered but rejected, as well as the excitement of discovering the idea he finally used.
Constantly along the Fa key, the G flat appears.
A single measure of imitative material develops in G♭ major.
The hesitant chords are followed by a section marked Un poco più vivace featuring fast B major scales.
An allegro in G♯ minor is imitative and vigorous, and looks like possible rondo material.
The wavering chords move from G♯ minor to E major and C♯ minor to A major.
After a passage similar to a descending cadence and a series of trills, improvised chords in A major and G major return to A major.
The arrival of the F dominant, the dominant of the key of the fugue, B♭ major, is prolonged with right-hand trills and a descending scale in sixteenth notes. The tonic chord of B♭ major arrives with great emotion to give way to the theme of the fugue.
This huge and complex fugue presents a challenge to both performer and listener. Its dizzying jumps, labyrinth of sixteenth-note passages, trills, chromatic figures, harmonic inflections, double notes, and strange arrangement of voice levels make it extremely difficult for the performer to execute. Furthermore, its length and complexity result in many listeners getting lost or drifting. Covering the fugue is, however, a rewarding undertaking, as it represents a unique opportunity at the pinnacle of Beethoven's musical thought and, indeed, in all of piano literature.
The theme opens with a leap of a tenth, motif 1, followed by a trill motif 2. A sixteenth note passage then develops.
The second entry of the subject, motive 1 and motive 2, in the upper part the voice, designated as upper voice, enters the dominant. The countersubject consists of octave jumps followed by a more lyrical-sounding group of eighth notes that end with the rhythmic gesture of an eighth note, an eighth rest, and a fourth note.
Thoroughly review the various voices throughout the fugue.