Stephen Smith

Vancouver pianist, composer/arranger, choral conductor, teacher, and writer on music


15 Jul 2020

Programme Notes on Beethoven's Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106 (The "Hammerklavier")

"Certainly there is something akin to joy in the grotesque." — G.K. Chesterton

"Monumental, heroic, painstakingly crafted… A huge canvas covered with twisting figures." So wrote Michael Wood about Théodore Géricault’s "Raft of the Medusa," completed the same year the Hammerklavier was published. He could have been writing about the Hammerklavier itself. Both works are so large and detailed as to be almost incomprehensible, and both works occupied their creators almost exclusively while they were taking shape. (Some of Beethoven’s sketches remain, but the autograph has been lost since World War II.)

The first movement begins with an assault on the keyboard: a left hand leap of more than two octaves, fortissimo. (Attempting the impossible is a feature of this piece!) A revolutionary key-scheme of descending thirds holds the enormous movement together. It ends with what sounds like thunder and lightening.

The quirky scherzo is a disturbing mixture of the menacing and the silly, of awkwardness and grace.

The extraordinary slow movement is in a sonata form which unfolds over a span of about 20 minutes. The main theme, partly in F# minor and partly in G major, gives way to a bel-canto-style transition and a second theme in D which involves crossing of the hands and some intense counterpoint. The development consists entirely of a long chain of descending thirds, after which the first theme returns, excruciatingly ornamented. The rest of the recapitulation is a bewildering search for resolution, constantly building up to nowhere, slowing down to nothing, breaking off, starting again, and finding rest at last on an F# major chord.

The finale begins by groping for something, again searching through a chain of descending thirds. At last the various elements synthesize into a complex fugue subject that begins with an upward leap of a tenth to a firece trill. For many minutes, Beethoven grapples with this idea--turning it upside-down, doubling its rhythmic values, playing it backwards--until it seems to go berserk, and rushes headlong into a cadence on A.

Out of the silence that follows emerges a second fugue, which D. F. Tovey likened to a "still, small voice." At first this new idea appears to be an antidote to the chaos and violence of the first fugue, but then the two subjects meet and fuse, and out of them is born an even more hideous monster: a double fugue, full of finger-wrenching contortions, gross dissonances, and extremes of register. This hurtles to a cadence, and then the first subject comes flooding back, with its trill transformed into an 11-measure growl from the depths of the keyboard. After a moment of suspense, the piece ends in a frenzy of leaps and trills.

© Copyright 1994, Stephen J. Smith