Hammerklavier: Revered and feared unlike almost any other work

With the completion of the “Hammerklavier” sonata in 1818, Beethoven overcame a period of crisis, despondence and confusion. In the years preceding the composition of this sonata, he completed only a handful of works, and became ever more dependent on the support of Archduke Rudolf, to whom this work is dedicated. The dimensions of this sonata surpass those of any written before it. It has the most exclamatory opening of any of the 32 sonatas, and is the only sonata by Beethoven in a major key to begin with a fortissimo marking. Its technical challenges are manifold, and have been discussed at length, giving it something of a respectfully infamous reputation. However, these technical challenges serve rhetorical and expressive purposes, rather than being there to merely showcase pianistic prowess. They exist to convey a sense of physical struggle, and to make the music visceral as well as cerebral. Connections to works of Beethoven written both before and after can be heard in the Hammerklavier. The two connections that are of most interest to me are to the second of the Op. 33 bagatelles, written in 1801-2, and to the Missa Solemnis, which Beethoven started in 1819, a year after publishing the Hammerklavier sonata. The second movement is characterized by humorous rhetorical pauses in a manner similar to the second bagatelle from Op. 33. In addition, the Minore sections of both movements have a number of motivic similarities. The connection to the Missa Solemnis is less specific and has more to do with the ways in which Beethoven characterizes certain tonalities and textures. The rising and descending scales at the end of the second subject of the slow movement, in both its iterations, are similar in character to the scales heard towards the end of the Missa Solemnis, as the words “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace) are sung. Ascribing adjectives to such moments exposes one to the danger of falling into the trap of cliches; but in both instances, I cannot help but think that Beethoven is describing eternity and consolation. The first public performance of this work was given by Liszt in 1836. Ever since, it has been revered and feared unlike almost any other work.

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