In addition to Hammerklavier’s enormous demands upon a performer’s technique and powers of concentration, the work also poses unusual interpretive problems. It was published in both Vienna and London under Beethoven’s supervision, but the autograph has never been found. Unfortunately, the two sources contain many divergent readings, sometimes in important places, and there is also a strange reversal of the order of second and third movements in the London edition – perhaps reflecting how Ries decided to perform them.
Equally problematic is the matter of tempo, where Beethoven ostensibly went out of his way to be as explicit as possible. Although Op. 106 is his only piano sonata with metronome indications, those markings, particularly in the opening movement, are simply ludicrous. Most pianists who can manage the proscribed 138 to the half-note (I freely admit to not being among them) succeed only in making as strong a case as possible against the validity of such a notion. Even if Beethoven’s primitive metronome was accurate, two other facts must be taken into account: Composers often “hear” their music faster than anyone else because they have digested it so thoroughly during the process of creation that they do not require the time the rest of us need to absorb it. Furthermore, with Beethoven now virtually deaf, it is likely that he had lost the spatial sense that music requires in order to be cogent, and for its nuances to be adequately conveyed. Although it should be played in a headstrong manner, numerous sections contain pungent rhythms and complex and subtle harmonic details that simply cannot be heard at the indicated tempo.
Aside from being his lengthiest sonata by far—due mostly to the vast landscape of the slow movement—the piece is sonically huge, sounding extraordinarily symphonic. Inevitably, there is no sidestepping the fact that the Hammerklavier is no “fun piece” for the listener. It is as tough, gnarled, and uncompromising as anything Beethoven wrote.
Think of it! As early as 1819, Beethoven was attempting to re-define the concept of tonality by casting aside the traditional role of the dominant key (the second most fundamental entity in the tonal system), and elevating another note – the third – to that level of importance. In this respect, he was well ahead of later 19th century composers like Liszt and Wagner, who, by exploiting and thwarting our expectations of traditional harmonic practice, were still acknowledging its traditions. It is not too great an exaggeration to state that we must look to Debussy and Schoenberg to find such radical transformation of musical thought.
For the sonata’s layout, Beethoven reverted to the four-movement Grande Sonate model that he had used so frequently in his youth. The opening movement, in sonata-allegro form, contains one of the most disputed readings in all of Beethoven’s music. Just prior to the return of the main theme there is a progression in the bass line, in which an A-sharp enharmonically becomes the tonic B-flat. However strange the music sounds as printed, even to our 21st century ears, both editions are explicit. Controversy exists nonetheless, because a sketch in Beethoven’s hand indicates the more conventional A-natural.
Pianist Alfred Brendel believes that the natural is correct, and notes that A-sharp robs the recapitulation of its proper sense of triumph. I agree with Brendel’s observations, but am more persuaded by esteemed British musicologist, Donald Tovey, who wrote that Beethoven may originally have meant an A-natural, but would have been overjoyed had anyone pointed out that he had actually written an A-sharp, and would have insisted that it stand as is. Throughout his career, Beethoven often purposely de-emphasized the moment when the main theme returns. This is true in the Hammerklavier, where the left-hand accompaniment ensures that the power of the sonata’s opening cannot be duplicated here. Since the A-sharp eliminates a dominant-tonic progression leading to the recapitulation, one of this sonata’s fundamental goals is achieved by simply following the published score.
The Scherzo is also based on descending thirds. It ends on two brief repeated notes that Beethoven also employs to conclude each phrase in the darker-hued Trio. That motif operates with great humorous effect in the brief Coda, where as previously mentioned, B minor tries very hard to assert itself, but without much success.
Superficially, the slow movement seems to recall the Largo e mesto (vast and joyless) of the Sonata No. 7, Op. 10/3; one can easily understand the temptation to perform the Adagio in a tragic, lugubrious fashion from the first to the last. But that is not Beethoven’s intention: True, it is marked Adagio sostenuto, but another description—Appassionato e con molto sentimento—is also provided at the movement’s outset. Elsewhere he writes con grande expression and molto espressivo. Yes, pathos is undeniably present, but the movement is far more multi-faceted.
For all its length, it is cast in Sonata form, with an expansive coda. The following "road map" might assist those listeners who feel the need to track the movement's progress:
Exposition: Main theme
Central to the Development Section is the extended “descending thirds” passage quoted above. (It is hard to imagine that Brahms was unaware of it, given the opening of his own 4th Symphony.) It leads directly to the Recapitulation with a highly embellished variation of the opening theme, whose progress can be followed in the lowest note of each 4-note group in the right hand:
It is only in the final movement that “normal” sonata procedure is abandoned. The composer begins by searching for an appropriate conclusion to the work, as he would do in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony. But whereas, in the later orchestral work, Beethoven would use the occasion to audition themes from previous movements, in the Hammerklavier, the material is always new. On four occasions, Beethoven interrupts that seemingly rhythm-less series of descending thirds quoted earlier, in order to try out short ideas that have occurred to him. Suddenly, he has the answer. He is elated: those chained thirds become faster, louder, and more excited. Then he calms down, and the fugue itself begins.
The movement can be broken down into seven discernible sections:
1. Introduction. Here is the opening, with two of the “interruptions” included.
3. A new theme in G flat major is introduced and briefly developed.
The section concludes with such tension and dissonance that the untrained listener might well imagine the piece had been composed in 1919, not 1819.
4. The tension dissolves into a return of that new theme, this time in A flat major. Like its predecessor, it too dissolves into a section in which the fugue subject is played backwards, or as textbooks call it, retrograde, with a counter-melody in the other hand.
Finally, the entire subject is stated in its mirrored form:
5. A new introspective melody, presented fugally, offers a brief moment of repose.
For the first time in the movement, Beethoven now seems to be striving toward a conclusion, via the introduction of yet another fugal technique known as stretto, in which one voice enters before the previous one has had its full say, as in a heated conversation:
Things appear to be solidifying harmonically as well. The dominant note F begins to play a more important role than it has previously, occurring as a repeated pedal point in the bass, portending the return of the tonic B flat.
Just at a point where he would seem to be heading into the sonata's concluding measures, he takes a deep breath and begins the fugue anew. False alarm! Beethoven will have his little joke.