Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Beethoven - Piano Sonata Op. 106 - Cover

Sonata No. 29, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”

Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

on Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”

András Schiff

András Schiff

on Op. 106, “The Hammerklavier”

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier" (I. Allegro)

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier" (II. Scherzo)

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier" (IV. Largo; Fuga; Allegro risoluto)

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier" (I. Allegro)

Audio excerpted from Richard Goode / Ludwig van Beethoven: The Late Sonatas / Nonesuch

The “Hammerklavier” is a baffling work for many listeners, but Beethoven felt it was his greatest piano sonata. “I am writing a sonata now which is going to be my greatest,” Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, reported him as saying. Beethoven even went so far as to claim that it was “a sonata that would give pianists something to do” and would “be played fifty years hence.” His boasting proved to be an understatement: The sonata is still played nearly two hundred years after its composition—and it has certainly given many pianists “something to do.” Liszt was among the first pianists to master its difficulties and the work continues to challenge even the greatest players today.

Part of the sonata’s difficulty stems from the incredibly fast metronome markings that Beethoven specified. The markings were long thought to be a mistake, but many pianists now play the sonata at nearly the indicated tempo.

Beethoven composed the “Hammerklavier”
(Audio 1) between 1817 and 1818 during a period of personal crisis that found him in the midst of a long and vicious legal battle for custody of his nephew Karl. Despite bouts of sometimes suicidal despair, however, his capacity to compose transcendent music seemed unaffected.

The “Hammerklavier” Sonata shows an astounding degree of structural coherence both within and in between its movements. Repeating particular intervals in his melodies
(Audio 2), using fugal elements (Audio 3), and exploiting the tension between contrasting keys (Audio 4), the composer achieves both a tightly integrated structure and a revolutionary synthesis of existing techniques. As in his late string quartets, and in particular his Grosse Fugue, Op. 133, Beethoven seemed to be on a quest to exhaust the compositional possibilities of a given form with this sonata.