In 1817 Thomas Broadwood, one of the sons of the John Broadwood & Sons piano company of London, met Beethoven in Vienna. He told him that he wanted to present him with one of his firm’s best instruments since Beethoven was the greatest musician/composer alive. This piano was grander in scale than what Beethoven had. It had a greater range, a complete octave more. More sophisticated pedals and stringing apparatus also enhanced the sound of the famed Broadwood instruments. Inspired by these prospects, Beethoven began writing a new huge sonata for it well before it even arrived, the Sonata in Bb Major opus 106, the “Hammerklavier”. Hammerklavier (hammer keyboard) is the German term for fortepiano – what we now simply call the piano. The Broadwood piano made its long journey from London by ship through the Straights of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea to Trieste, and then by cart to Vienna. Even though he could barely hear it, the new owner reveled in its possibilities. As you listen to the sonata, you’ll notice Beethoven’s use of the extremes, the louds and softs, the highs and lows (heaven and earth). Here is a link to photos and more of Beethoven’s Broadwood Hammerklavier!
The sonata has long beguiled, challenged, and perplexed pianists and listeners alike. There is its great length, its monstrous technical difficulties, unusual key juxtapositions, and almost strange fugal writing. And then there is that wondrously profound slow movement in F# minor, a key rather remote to the sonata’s home key of Bb. This movement is long! Performances of it alone vary from 13’ to 22’! It is transformative and powerful enough to touch your soul if you’ll let it.
This sonata is regarded by many musicians as one of the most important sonatas, if not pieces of music, ever written! I certainly agree. I love this piece and would be happy to have it be the last music I ever heard.
I’m including links parts 1 and 2 to Andras Schiff’s lecture on the Hammerklavier Sonata below. If you have a score to the piece I recommend following along. Both his playing and verbal insights are revealing.
Here are three wonderful performances of the sonata representing different generations of music making. The first is by the great Solomon (1902-1988). His full name was Solomon Cutner but he was known professionally as Solomon. He must have really arrived I suppose, not unlike present icons such as Tiger or Madonna. But what a wonderful pianist!
Next the ever-elusive Glenn Gould. Not the slowness of his opening tempo compared to the other two.
And finally, the brilliant young Yuja Wang!
The Hammerklavier, Op.106