On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 4: Julian Jacobson

Pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson continues his Beethoven marathon series. Beethoven’s monumental Sonata in B flat major Op. 106, known as the ‘Hammerklavier’, is today’s chosen topic. You can read other posts in this series, here.

Ah, the redoubtable Hammerklavier. Beethoven’s “ne plus ultra” piano work, unless it be the Diabelli Variations. The piece that was regarded as unplayable, a closed book, until Franz Liszt deciphered it some forty years after it was written. Beethoven himself said, as he sent the manuscript off to his publishers, that he had written something that would keep pianists busy for the next hundred years: but in this he was being too modest – the sonata is proof against ever becoming “easy”, for pianists or indeed listeners.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I could not conceive of mounting a cycle until I had got the piece at least basically under my belt.

And its name? Basically it just means “the keyboard with hammers”, representing Beethoven’s nationalistic wish to get away from the Italian “pianoforte”. Four of the last five sonatas are headed “für das Hammerklavier”, and theoretically any piano sonata ever written could be called the Hammerklavier, given that all pianos have hammers. (Schubert’s little A major sonata as the “Hammerklavier”!!) But there is something absolutely right in ascribing the nickname only to Beethoven’s monumental B flat sonata, and not only because of its opening chords, the pianist hammering away at the keyboard for all s/he’s worth.

The sonata occupied Beethoven throughout 1818, his 48th year, at a time of ill health, ever-increasing deafness and battles with despondency shown particularly in the extraordinary, visionary, desolate 16-minute (at least) slow movement. Its outer movements represent a huge effort of indomitable willpower, while the second movement Scherzo is tense, enigmatic, parodistic and sometimes violent. The finale is the mother and father of all keyboard fugues: in many places it still sounds “modern” over two hundred years after it was written.

The autograph manuscript is lost. Beethoven was clearly writing under intense emotional pressure and the sonata has come down to us with several insoluble textual problems, including the most famous disputed note in musical history: the A?sharp in the lead back to the recapitulation in the first movement (bars 225-6 for the curious). And this the only place in all music where I consciously play a note despite believing it to be wrong: I play A sharp. This note is indicated by the key signature of five sharps (B major, which has been the key of the preceding passage), but it is usually, though not universally, assumed and asserted that Beethoven simply forgot to write the natural signs for the A’s and that they must be A natural, effecting a smooth V-I cadence back to the tonic B flat for the recapitulation.

But nobody can ever be quite certain since there is no primary evidence, several influential editions such as Schnabel’s and Hans von Bülow’s have argued for A sharp, and several major pianists play it. An argument FOR it is that something similar happens the 4th Symphony, moreover in the same key: the music just arrives back on the tonic, without the normal preparatory dominant.

I have read, if not all, a great many of the arguments for A natural and I have come to accept that they are probably right. But A sharp is the genie that has been let out of the bottle: it’s enormously weird and exciting, and just possibly it’s right. And now that it has got into the collective human musical conscious and subconscious mind, A natural can only sound flat, conventional, predictable and disappointing. So I play A sharp: but I bet it’s wrong!

Julian Jacobson
Image credit: Roger Harris



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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