Beethoven took a long time to compose his Piano Sonata no. 29 (the Hammerklavier) between summer 1817 and autumn 1818. It came after a period of reduced compositional activity at a time when he was struggling between experimental and traditional compositional forms and when increasing deafness meant that he could no longer hear himself play the piano.
The Hammerklavier was a departure from the experimental methods of the preceding sonatas, abandoning the complex forms, increasingly polyphonic textures, and sophisticated treatment of themes and motives for a more conventional approach. Beethoven returned to earlier influences, retracing early compositional principles of Haydn, Mozart, Handel, and Bach (sketches for the third movement contain fragments of the Well-Tempered Clavier).
The work follows classical formal structures and is organised around a descending third motif which is clearly recognisable in each of the four movements. The fourth movement toes the line between the experimental and the antique, employing traditional fugal devices but with such mastery that it sounds distinctly modern to the ear. The pianist Charles Rosen described the fugue as a re-evaluation of tradition: as ‘an act of violence that sought paradoxically to recover a tradition in a time of revolution by making it radically new.’
Since the date of its publication the Hammerklavier has been considered one of the most challenging works for the piano: it is certainly the longest and technically most difficult of Beethoven’s sonatas. The interchanging fortissimo rhythmic figures and gentle piano passages of the first movement require both stridency of attack and filigree delicacy, the long adagio section presents a challenging array of expressive ornamentation, and the many deviations of the extended fugue finale demand great finger control from the performer.
Much controversy has arisen around the tempo of the work. It is the only sonata to have been given metronome markings by the composer. In a letter to his pupil Ferdinand Ries (16 April 1819) Beethoven indicated that minim = 138 should be used for the first movement. This is a standard speed for an allegro but renders the piece impossibly difficult given the formidable technical demands it places on the performer, so today the Hammerklavier is usually performed with a flexible tempo.