Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hammering the Klavier: Beethoven's longest, most original piano sonata

“Should the sonata not be suitable for London, I could send another one; or you could also omit the Largo and begin straight away with the Fugue which is the last movement; or you could use the first movement and then the Adagio, and then for the third movement, the Scherzo, and omit entirely No. 4. Or you could take just the first movement and the Scherzo and let them form the whole sonata. I leave it to you to do as you think best.” 

The above quotation is from a letter that Beethoven wrote to his student Ferdinand Ries, who was about to play the London premiere of the Op. 106 Hammerklavier, his most massive, original, and ingeniously structured piano sonata. This says volumes about the musical world circa 1820, because in one of his letters Beethoven made it clear that he considered this piece to be of crucial importance in his output: “(the sonata) … will give pianists something to do  (and) will be played 50 years hence.”

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. 

Above all, it is relentlessly obsessive. A single interval, the third, permeates all the movements at the motivic, melodic and harmonic levels. It forms the basis of virtually every principal theme in all four movements of the sonata, but that is only the beginning: In the first three movements, the main theme’s melodic outline is identical: a rising third is followed by a descending third that brings us back to where we started.  
Furthermore, in each movement there are prominent melodies made up of chains of thirds. For instance:
·      The 2nd theme (G major) in 1st movement
·      The Fugato in the 1st movement’s Development section

·       Slow Movement: Development section

·      The bass line in the Introduction to the Finale (episodes omitted)

The obsession with the interval of the third operates even more deeply at the harmonic level. The sonata superficially sounds as if it is in a traditional key, but its internal workings are quite different, imparting a sense of strangeness to the piece. These unorthodox “ground rules” make the piece such a “tough nut to crack.”
Since B flat is the main key of the sonata, the dominant F major might be expected to play a key role, with large-scale areas of the piece written in that key, as in virtually all other works of the classical and early romantic era. But in the Hammerklavier, F’s role is extremely limited. Beethoven certainly employs the dominant chord as a brief resting-place on several occasions. However, never once, in a piece of music lasting 45 minutes, does he actually modulate into the key of F. Instead, Beethoven constructs an intricate system of four keys around B flat, and returns to them time and time again. Three of them, G, D, and F#, are all separated from B flat by the interval of a third, and the fourth, B minor, is in some way related to the other three.
Beethoven establishes the fourth important key – the so-called “black” key of B Minor, as he called it – about mid-way in the first movement. From that point onward, B minor serves as B flat major’s antithesis, with the struggle between the two keys occurring at various points throughout the sonata, and most obviously at the conclusion of the Scherzo

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

Exposition: Transition

Exposition: 2nd Group: Theme 1

Exposition: 2nd Group: Theme 2

Exposition: 2nd Group: (closing) Theme 3

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:

Recapitulation: Opening Theme embellished.

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.

Beethoven had included fugal sections in several of his earlier works, but writing a fugue as an entire movement was new for him. And what a weird, grotesque fugue it is! In sharp contrast to those of the Baroque masters, this one employs in a single piece every known manner of fugal writing.

The movement can be broken down into seven discernible sections:

1.   Introduction. Here is the opening, with two of the “interruptions” included.

 2.  The Fugue’s long main subject is introduced and developed. Note that it begins with a trill – ordinarily a concluding device. Nothing in this universe is as it should be.

3.  A new theme in G flat major is introduced and briefly developed. 

That theme leads to the original subject, now at half speed, a technique textbooks refer to as augmentation, with jarring accents and furious trills in the other hand. 

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.

Beethoven then extracts the first few notes of the theme, and ingeniously combines the original version with its mirrored inversion:

Finally, the entire subject is stated in its mirrored form:

Further development of these ideas culminates in a frantic, trill-laden passage that leads to an abrupt stop:

5.  A new introspective melody, presented fugally, offers a brief moment of repose. 

6.  That theme is combined with the opening of the fugue subject. 

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.

“Why??” the listener asks, almost angrily.  I asked myself the same question while I was learning the piece. In fact I confess that I tried to find a satisfactory cut at this point, justifying my action by comparing it to the massacre that Beethoven himself authorized Ries to carry out if he wished. Thankfully, the muses restored my reason before I committed that act.

Again, the discourse reheats. A final statement of the fugue in the tonic Bb is heard. Suddenly, with little warning, the music cadences at the very end of a bar, on a weak beat, once again providing an unsatisfactory ending! 

7.  There is nothing to do but to press onwards. Beethoven allows us to catch our breath, but only barely.  A brief improvisational Cadenza provides another lengthy pedal point on the dominant F. The section becomes increasingly slower, finally reaching an inconclusive pause, while Beethoven searches desperately for an exit! Suddenly he spots it. But it is not an easy journey. He has to struggle uphill with trills for an entire octave before he finally reaches the conclusion to this unique, gawky giant masterwork.