Beethoven - Piano Sonata no. 29 in Bb Major, “Hammerklavier”
I try to keep my blog varied, and not post music by the same composer twice in a row, but I had listened to Beethoven’s 6th symphony the other day and held off that blog post until today, and today I had a very, very strong itch to wipe the digital dust off of the titan that is the Hammerklavier sonata. I remember in high school, when I was getting more and more into classical music, I was excited to listen to this sonata, because everything I read about it spoke about its epic length and scope. But I also remember being disappointed, because to me, “Epic” Beethoven was something like his 5th piano concerto. This sonata was…weird. It turned me off. It seemed incomprehensible, especially the last movement, a fugue that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. As the years passed and my musical tastes ‘matured’ a bit more, I came back to the Hammerklavier and was able to follow along with a new mindset. Beethoven published the work as “Große Sonata für das Hammerklavier”, and indeed he puts a lot of emphasis on “Große”. You’re immediately grabbed by the strength and energy of the first five bars, the main theme that introduces Beethoven’s obsession with the interval of the 3rd [musicologists could go on forever about the different examples of Beethoven building all of the sonata’s musical ideas out of this interval, if you wanted to deconstruct it to the extreme]. And the movement goes on through deceptive “pretty” moments, to jittery octaves, to arpeggios of a single note across the keyboard to “cleanse the palate”, and overall a huge emphasis on counterpoint. The movement is pretty heavy, loud, and, under the surface, complicated. It’s contrasted with the super short scherzo, a playful movement cutting between lighthearted and dramatic music for comedic effect. As if improvising, we get a sudden glide from the bass of the keyboard all the way to the highest note, and then go right back to the lighthearted skipping theme. The short and playful is then contrasted by the long and deeply emotional adagio. It is played anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes [the recording I have with Christopher Eschenbach stretches to nearly half an hour!], and the opening chorale gets expanded through subtle variation as the music goes on, reaching operatic heights, and it sticks out with its relative thinness and solemnity, in compared to the opening extroverted toccata. Despite the pain, we are brought into a major key resolution and coda, a nod of acceptance that things will get better. The last movement, I’m going to argue, is almost…Postmodern. What I mean is that, in a meta-musical gesture, it sounds like Beethoven thinking aloud “I want to end this sonata with a fugue, how will I write it?”, the “cleansing the palate” single note arpeggio comes back, he plays with two different contrapuntal exercises, both sounding Baroque, as if Beethoven is looking through Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier for guidance. But he stops short each time, shakes his head, and tries something else. After a few “restarts”, he finally gets to The Fugue. And how insane it is. He uses a long, complicated melody, that modulates and uses chromatic runs, and writes it into a sprawling ocean of sound, using fugue writing conventions and a sewing-machine type Baroque mentality to create something dense, nearly atonal, robotic. But it isn’t a strict fugue, and breaks the rules here and there [it wouldn’t be True Beethoven without rule breaking]. There is so much conflict, a constant drive forward that is difficult to follow along, but its mesmerizing, until the inevitable slap of the last chords. Throughout his music, Beethoven consistently tries to push the boundaries of convention. Almost like William Blake, a contemporary English poet, Beethoven takes what came before, destroys it, and builds something new with the remains. At the end of the day, we have one of the greatest piano sonatas ever written, by one of the greatest composers of all time. But I’m concerned that all this hype, all this discussion about Beethoven and his music, makes it seem like something on a far off pedestal that only a few “gifted” listeners can enjoy. That’s not true at all. Despite the flowery language, the myth making, the academic and analytical writing, Beethoven is human, and his music is humanist. You don’t need theory to appreciate it, because he always writes from within.
The Well-Tempered Clavier with Chopin’s performing annotations
Chopin constantly turned to Bach as a supreme point of reference. The Well-Tempered Clavier is said to be the only score he took with him to Majorca in the winter of 1838-39, at the time he was completing his 24 Preludes op.28.
The influence of Bach on Chopin’s compositional style is indeed a powerful one. It can be detected at various levels throughout his works, from the youthful Sonata op. 4 to the late Sonata op. 65 for cello. The essentially linear conception that predominates in his development of musical ideas—the logical, elegant voice leading—appears to stem from an intimate connection with the work of J.S. Bach.
Until now the important role played by the Well-Tempered Clavier in Chopin’s teaching has been known on the basis of literary sources. The document published here for the first time confirms it with living proof of a different kind, a live record, so to speak, of his teaching.
Leafing through the pages of this copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier I, one cannot fail to be struck by the neatness with which the signs and words indicating tempo, metronome marks, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, left-hand octaves, and so on, have been notated.