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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world. To listen to KPAC 88.3 FM, simply open the player in the gray ribbon at the top of this page and choose KPAC: Classical Music.

One Of Beethoven's Greatest Testaments, The 'Hammerklavier Sonata'

1820 portrait of Beethoven done by Joseph Karl Stieler, color by Greg Firlotte

My piano teacher told me about the story of Ludwig van Beethoven's creation of his biggest Piano Sonata the "Hammerklavier."

It goes back to John Broadwood sending him his best and biggest piano, and Beethoven's reply was this groundbreaking work. When I looked up to confirm what I was told, I found out the story was even more amazing.

When you look at the timeline of what happened, the piano arrives after the work was composed! I always imagined that Beethoven got the piano - with its bigger compass (6 octaves from CC to c'''') -  and improvised on it, learning how it worked for him and experimenting with the music, finally devising the sonata as we know it.

Turns out the composer got a letter from the piano manufacturer, Broadwood, who explained the gift - hey, the most famous musician in the world plays my piano - and its features including the larger compass.

It was then that the composer learned of the new possibilities inherent in the instrument and started the music right away. When you think about it, it makes sense. Who knew pianos better than Beethoven?

His deafness had pushed his music making from a physical to a more mental exercise and here is where the "Hammerklavier" was born - it was conceptual art from the beginning.

Dedicated to the composer's most influential patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria - no last name needed, Beethoven works through several of his recent fixations.

The sonata starts with a classical flourish in the correct key - the pianist plays a fanfare - a series of chords in B-flat major. The construction begins immediately with a favorite device of the great architect, as Beethoven was known, a highly involved sonata form.

The composer uses Italian to give the performer their instructions, but the title is in German and here we get the nickname for the work "Hammerklavier."

The composer works his way through most of most of the ingredients of sonata form with first subject, exposition, second subject and something Beethoven was fond of at the time, a fugato. Something else in this movement that one rarely sees in his music, a triple forte to end the movement.

The second movement is a Scherzo (Italian for jest) and the joke is on the pianist. Beethoven asks a lot from the pianist here, with a phrase in triplets that comes from the "fanfare" that opened the first movement.

After exploring the relationship between B-flat and B-natural, and keeping listener's in the dark (typical of Beethoven), an explosive run zips up the keyboard before re-introducing the original triple meter time.

Beethoven grew slow movements throughout his career. It wasn't long before he started stretching and building great tension in them, and now he has reached such a point that he is existing on another planet - planet Beethoven.

It is not surprising that the composer constructed, as the fulcrum of his 9th symphony, a giant adagio, and its predecessor is here in the "Hammerklavier Sonata."

Paul Bekker called the movement "the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe".

Pianists have a great deal to focus on here and the tempo you play the works depends on your focus and the impact you wish to make. Performance times vary from 16 to 25 minutes.

Like the preceding sonata, "Opus 101 in A major," Beethoven transitions from the third movement to the fourth.

Beethoven's first real music as a young pianist was learning Bach's "Well Tempered Klavier," and now at the end of his development as an artist he composes a fugue about fugues and takes us to a more orderly world.

J. S. Bach thought of fugues as bordering on heavenly, but this movement by Beethoven isn't about bliss, it's about life, and it proceeds with determination in a triple fugue that can itself be divided in three parts.

The composer's humanism and massive intellect is on display here and if the pianist performing isn't of the highest caliber, the music and the impact on the listener will suffer.

There is so much more in Beethoven's "Hammerklavier Sonata," and you can hear it in it's entirety Wednesday morning in the six o'clock hour on KPAC, your Classical Oasis.

Randy was Texas Public Radio's Classical Music Director until 2013 and the longest-serving employee in Texas Public Radio's history. He hosted the very first airshift on KPAC when the station went on the air at 90.9 FM in San Antonio back in November, 1982.