A Multi-Layered Revolution of the Piano Sonata

Ryan Modafe

July 28, 2023

Beethoven’s many masterpieces have been widely acclaimed to be among the epitome of greatness in the piano literature, held in the highest regard. His melodies have reached every crevice of the world with his especially popular works such as Fur Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and his Fifth Symphony. However, his true greatness unveiled itself throughout his monstrously large 29th Sonata, nicknamed “Hammerklavier”, a word Beethoven used to replace the traditional naming of the instrument, “pianoforte”. With four fantastical movements bursting with moments of joy and triumph as well as aching with grief and hollowness, it brings the piano and player to their very limits of expression and athletic ability. Spanning almost 45 minutes in length, it is challenging in almost every aspect of instrumentalism and music.

The first movement begins with a grand opening as the left hand must leap almost two feet from the edge of the keyboard to the center, immediately setting the tone for the performance and sending the music into flight. It continues weaving through seamless modulations, and throughout the almost purely major key, which generally has an upbeat and lighthearted tone, there seems to be an undertone of restraint waiting to be unshackled. An interesting pattern begins to emerge throughout this movement that seeps into the rest of the sonata and peeks its head at various moments. The constant use of the interval of a third is present in all parts of the entire sonata and is visible throughout the first movement with its many motives and compositional techniques, all utilizing the third interval as a transitional mechanism.

The second movement being a scherzo has a jolly introduction that soon transforms into a loosened form of the restraint present in the previous movement. This jovial and innocent theme so quickly grows a mischievous grin, as if waiting in the shadows, to ultimately shout “Boo!” and have a quiet laugh about it. It is almost as if Beethoven intended to wake any slumbering audience member with a fright in his immediate change from a delicate pianissimo to bombastic octaves at presto tempo towards the end of the movement. As if holding the notes in the air, conjuring the utmost suspense, the movement ends and with a slight pause begins the haunting third movement.

The third movement, marked Adagio sostenuto embodies despair, coldness, and angst to its finest. With its slow build from the beginning, the bone chilling octaves, and a climax melody sent from the heavens it is an experience quite unlike any other. Drama grips the entirety of this movement and sustains itself with the aid of the trudging slow tempo. Towards the middle, a sense that can only be described as reminiscence of the past and its childlike innocence briefly emerges. However, the short remembrance turns into longing and the most frigid emotions possible during the recapitulation, the melody of which is seen by many as transcendent of mankind. Shortly afterward, the music begins to uncoil itself from the tension created and soothingly goes to sleep.

The fourth movement, the king of kings, being the most difficult of the four movements in an already extremely taxing set. The true magic of this movement slowly unravels from its seemingly docile beginning to a three-voice fugue feared by the greatest of pianists, rivaling those of Beethoven’s great predecessor, Bach, whose contrapuntal techniques laid the foundation for composition in classical music. Beethoven seems to allow his quill to run free and adopts many unorthodox harmonies throughout the movement and displaying his odd enamorment with trills and sforzandos dispersed greatly throughout the work. His writing is quite unpianistic with many awkward jumps and great hand stretches attempting to emulate multiple people playing on the instrument. However, what this has allowed him to do is to create a frenzy of emotions ranging from blind rage and craze to unrestrained passion and ecstasy. It fittingly encapsulates the volatile journey undertaken by both the audience and player and properly ends the almost alien piece.