♫ With this lecture, we come, at long last, to the sonata op. 106, the “Hammerklavier” sonata. Now, throughout this course, there’s probably no point I’ve tried to drive home harder than the individuality of each Beethoven sonata – the way in which each sonata is a world unto itself, and worthy of being examined individually, on its own merits. And that is true. But the Hammerklavier’s uniqueness is another matter entirely. It is a work without parallel – not just among Beethoven’s sonatas, or among his music in general, but really, in the history of music thus far. This is so much more than a matter of duration, but I’ll start with that, because it’s the most objective way of measuring things. Different pianists play the Hammerklavier with widely divergent tempi – more on this later – but one way or another, the Hammerklavier is more than 40 minutes long, and it can be more than 45; none of the other 31 sonatas clocks in at even 30 minutes. (As a side note, the relative brevity of the sonatas is an interesting question: many of Beethoven’s string quartets are in the 30 to 35 minute range, and a number of them are longer. When you hear the Appassionata, or the Waldstein, or Op. 7, or Op. 111, you don’t feel that these works are less substantial than the quartets. But for some reason – perhaps the consolidation of all of the voices in a single instrument? – they are generally far more compact.) With the exception of the Hammerklavier, that is. The Hammerklavier's last two movements, played without pause, take as long to play as any other Beethoven sonata does in its entirety. But again, when speaking about the massiveness of the Hammerklavier’s canvass, the length is really the least of it. The first movement, clocking in at just 11 minutes, is already titanic. Its ideas are expressed with a ferocious intensity, even by Beethoven’s standards, and never, but never, has Beethoven been so indifferent to the limitations of the instrument. First of all, he gives all the movements – the first, above all – metronome markings that I think can fairly be described as literally impossible. (Because these metronome markings are so fast, in some cases so preposterously fast, many pianists simply ignore them entirely, embracing the theory that Beethoven was a deaf man – true – working with a faulty metronome – not true, or at least, an unsupported assertion – and that he could not possibly have meant them. In case I haven’t already tipped my hat, I think this attitude is the wrong one. Composers tend to mark their work too fast – much more often than they mark it too slowly. This is most likely because their familiarity with their own music is so intimate, so deep, they just don’t need that much time to hear and digest the ideas properly. The listener, who almost by definition has a less fully developed relationship with the piece, will inevitably need more time to process the events of the music. But while the metronome markings in the Hammerklavier are so totally impractical they are certainly at least somewhat misguided, and possibly not even precisely what Beethoven intended, I definitely think they reveal SOMETHING about his conception of the piece. Played at the slower tempo one might choose if left with no instructions, the first movement of the Hammerklavier sounds magisterial; played as close as possible to Beethoven’s marking, it retains its massiveness, but becomes incredibly urgent, almost frenzied – I think this is much truer to the nature of the work.) But whatever conclusion one draws about the metronome markings, they are certainly not the only thing making the Hammerklavier borderline unplayable. One phrase in, he has already included chords so large and unwieldy, few pianists can get their hands around them without breaking them slightly. His fixation – one that manifests in all of the late sonatas – on stationing the two hands at the far ends of the keyboard becomes so extreme, one feels that Beethoven is searching for a sound-world that is more grand and more multi-dimensional than the piano could ever achieve. And the counterpoint is so fast moving and so complex – in the final fugue, above all – that even rendered impeccably, it is nearly impossible to comprehend. The Grosse Fuge for string quartet, op. 133, is a similarly harrowing fugue, but it features almost no sixteenth notes – at its fastest, it moves in triplets. The Hammerklavier fugue, by contrast, is mostly sixteenths, and each event whizzes by before the listener has grasped what has just happened. But even more significantly, in the Grosse Fuge, there are four people playing! The fact that all the voices in the Hammerklavier are being produced by the same timbre, by the same brain, by the same set of fingers, makes it triply hard to distinguish them from one another. So while on the general topic of the scope of this work, I must mention the slow movement – the longest slow movement Beethoven ever wrote, and in my obviously subjective but deeply held opinion, the greatest slow movement ever written. When I lectured on the sonata Op. 110, I pointed out that Beethoven did not write all that many tragic slow movements at any point in his life, and he wrote particularly few of them in his late period, when his slower music tended towards transcendence. That makes the third movement of the Hammerklavier all the more astonishing – a fifteen-plus minute expression of the deepest agony, at once searingly personal and able to speak, profoundly and directly, for all of humanity.