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The future of the piano: A silhouette of Beethoven, by Schlipmann, c.1886 (©DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Beethoven’s claim to be the most important composer of classical music who ever lived rests on one particular gift: the repeated ability, manifested at each stage of his career, to reinvent or expand a conventional form and produce something quite without precedent. It is for this reason that he deserves the overused epithet revolutionary (which in truth applies to only a very small number of composers). Of all the instances in which he achieved this, even more than in the case of the Ninth Symphony, the most awe-inspiring is the so-called Hammerklavier piano sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106, written exactly 200 years ago in 1818-1819.

All the major works of Beethoven's final years (he died in 1827) make tremendous demands upon listener as well as performer; but perhaps the Hammerklavier makes the most tremendous of all upon both. In order to listen to, as opposed merely to hear, a performance of this behemoth, it is almost as if a new set of auditory equipment is required. Like the snake which has to detach its lower jaw in order to ingest a particularly large item of prey, one finds that the existing mechanisms of musical attentiveness are simply insufficient. Alan Walker has suggested that the piece “lies somewhere in the future of the piano”. Beethoven himself had an intuition of this futurity when he said that the sonata would be keeping pianists busy in 50 years’ time. He was right: its anatomy bears no more relationship to the ordinary piano sonata than the inflated and muscle-bound body-builder’s resembles the average physique.

It is therefore not surprising that a common element in the significant literature that has gathered around the sonata is a certain semi-coherent breathlessness. Here for example is Burnett James:

This is the crux, the key, the pinnacle — call it what you choose so long as it is seen as the greatest of all piano sonatas . . . a solitary peak, a lonely testament at once as heroic and as desolate as the composer during the years when it was conceived and written down.

 And again:

It is a huge work by any standards, a vast musical structure nominally (more than nominally) in four movements yet far surpassing in integrated expressive range and structural cohesion any conventional four-movement composition, even one of Beethoven’s own . . . These certainly are large claims; but they have to be made because they are true . . . this is one of the towering testaments to the human mind and spirit.

The massiveness of Op 106 is not anticipated in any preceding work. True it is that Beethoven had already burst the boundaries of at least two other genres, in the case of the Eroica symphony and the Kreutzer violin sonata, each of which was both longer and more dramatic than any preceding example, by Beethoven or anybody else. This however does not mean that the sonata is altogether unforeshadowed. In the comparatively obscure piano sonata No. 11, Op 22 (1800), which is also in B flat, there are elements of anticipation, most obviously the preoccupation with thirds (further explained below). A nearer comparator — more of a preparation — is another piece published under the rubric Sonate für das Hammerklavier — the immediately preceding sonata No 28, Op 101 (1816).
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