5. Autograph Tempo in Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata”—Practice and Theory

Before we begin with a comparative look at the individual tempo parameters of all three sonatas, we would like to address a question that applies only to the Hammerklavier Sonata: To what extent do pianists realize Beethoven’s autograph metronome markings? Since it is generally not clear whether a metronome marking applies to the average tempo of a movement or only to its opening measures, it seems reasonable to give a double answer. Since so many pianists adopted the position that the tempo was especially problematic for the opening measures, we excluded this line of questioning from the outset. A statement about the tempo of the first measures would be just that, nothing else.

However, regarding an average tempo we must consider that the movement is filled with ritardandi and fermatas that would drastically reduce the average tempo and which Beethoven was certainly not considering as being included when assigning metronome marks to the movement. We removed all of these measures accordingly when calculating the average tempo.

Figure 5: Average Tempo Hammerklavier Sonata (without ritardando and fermata measures)

If we view the average tempo of the movement established in this manner (see Figure 5), we see that very few pianists come close to Beethoven’s half note = 138: Artur Schnabel (1935) and at best Michael Korstick (2003) and Walter Gieseking (1949). Even Friedrich Gulda in both of his recordings (1951, 1967) and Michael Leslie (2008) fall far short. The majority of pianists remain in the range suggested by performance editions and other work commentary, from those of Ignaz Moscheles (1841) to William S. Newman (1971): between half note = 116 and 92 (more on this below). Two pianists even play as slowly as is suggested by Felix Weingartner in his transcription of the work for orchestra (1926): Glenn Gould (1970) and Tatjana Nikolajewa (1983). Weingartner suggests half note = 80. ( 20)

Before delving into a comparative interpretation of these tempo data, we would first like to take a detailed look at the various discussions on the correct tempo of the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata since the 1840s. Only Carl Czerny, who studied the sonata repeatedly with Beethoven and who premiered the piece, was apparently of the opinion that the tempo half note = 138 was possible and also made sense aesthetically. He writes in the chapter on Beethoven from the Kunst des Vortrags der älteren und neueren Klavierkompositionen in the Klavierschule op. 500 (1842):

“The principle difficulty comes from the tremendously fast and fiery tempo given by the author himself, and then in the performance of the melodic but polyphonic passages to be performed strictly Legato, in the clean performance of the passages, tensions and leaps and finally in the endurance that all of this requires. All of the individual difficulties require attentive practice, and the conception of the grand, whole first movement, kept more in the symphony style develops after repeated performance then after it has been learned, accorded the proper amount of time.” ( 21)

So Czerny also thought that the “tremendously fast and fiery” autograph tempo provided extraordinary difficulties, but at the same time he asserts that an appropriate interpretation of the work is only possible as a result of the “proper amount of time.”

Other than Czerny, since Ignaz Moscheles (1841) the metronome marking was considered too high, and this increasingly so. Moscheles recommends half note = 116. ( 22) Hans von Bülow (1873) ( 23) , Eugen d’Albert (1902) ( 24) , Alfredo Casella (1920) ( 25) , and Frederic Lamond (1923) ( 26) , recommended 112. Bülow comments extensively on this decision in a footnote in his edition:

“With the metronomisation, in so far as it principally affects the character of the principal motive, the Editor finds himself considerably at variance with the statement of CARL CZERNY (“Art of Delivery”, Part IV of the Pianoforte-school, Op. 500), who, in his quality of first and contemporaneous interpreter of the later pianoforte-works of BEETHOVEN deserves to be consulted as an authority; of course, not altogether an infallible one. CZERNY’S tempo, = 138, that so little agrees with the ponderous energy of the theme, and seems to be taken too quickly even for the sections of this movement which admit of a greater acceleration, perhaps finds in the lack of sonority of the Viennese pianofortes of the time a kind of justification. On a modern concert-grand of the first quality (and such a one, in a certain sense a substitute for the orchestra, is required for the due rendering of this Sonata), CZERNY’S tempo would have a bewildering and blurring effect.” ( 27)

Bülow thought that Czerny’s tempo was definitely too fast, especially considering the “ponderous energy” of the primary theme. He suggests that the “lack of sonority of the Viennese pianofortes” might be a possible explanation for the tempo being too fast. He also, however, questions Czerny’s authority on the subject. Carl Friedberg (1920) ( 28) calls for half note = 104, Samuil Feinberg ( 29) and William Newman (1971) ( 30) 96—at most 100—before Donald Francis Tovey (1931) ( 31) finally arrives at 80–92, the tempo that Weingartner (1926) calls for in his orchestral version.

Although the tempo marking half note = 138 was included in the first two editions of the work (Vienna and London), and although the metronome marking was well known after the appearance of Franz Gerhard Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries’s Biogra­phi­sche Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven (1838), which included Beethovens letter to Ries with the metronome markings in question ( 32), the old Beethoven-Gesamtausgabe (1862–1865) ( 33) does not include any metronome markings for the Hammerklavier Sonata. Hans von Bülow (1873; see above) obviously assumed that the metronome markings came from Carl Czerny (an assumption that was unexplainably repeated still in 1966 by Alexander Goldenweiser, the influential Soviet pianist and piano pedagogue, as well as by the Beethoven scholar Martin Cooper ( 34) in 1970). It was Carl Reinecke who finally once more made clear that the metronome markings came from Beethoven in his widely read and repeatedly reprinted study Die Beethoven’schen Clavier-Sonaten (1897)—even if Reinecke himself did find the markings too fast for the first movement:

“B(eethoven) himself set the tempo of the Allegro at = 138 M. M., but certainly anyone would ask himself, if the grand character of the movement would not be better brought out at a somewhat slower tempo.” ( 35)

At the end of the notes on the first movement Reinecke cites Robert Schumann, who reportedly once said to a student after hearing him play the movement “ ‘You should hear Clara play this.’ ” ( 36) So perhaps one might speculate that Clara Schumann, one of the first important interpreters of the piece, didn’t play the original metronome markings either; her student Carl Friedberg only suggests half note = 104 in his own edition (see above).

In editions from 1910 onward, which increasingly came to be understood as ‘Urtext’ editions, the number 138 appears more and more—not criticized but also uncommented. Once again, Artur Schnabel pointed out the fact that the markings came from Beethoven himself in his own edition (1924–1927) ( 37) and more significantly, he recorded the movement in 1935 at this tempo (see Figure 5).

This did nothing to change the reigning view that the tempo is wrong. On the contrary, it actually fueled many in this view: Edwin Fischer ( 38), Hermann Keller ( 39), Claudio Arrau ( 40), Samuil Feinberg ( 41), Rudolf Serkin ( 42), William Newman ( 43), Martin Cooper ( 44), Svjatoslav Richter ( 45) and Alfred Brendel ( 46) continued to argue that the tempo was too fast, many expressly citing Schnabel’s “distressingly hectic” (Newman), “totally unacceptable recording” (Richter). The reasons offered for rejecting the quick tempo are generally comprehensibility, feeling and character (Fischer, Keller, Serkin, Brendel), but also more specifically “grand character” (Feinberg) and even “Majesty” (Arrau). Brendel especially repeatedly points to sheer pianistic impossibility. He wrote in 1976: “The written tempo of the first movement is not even close to surmountable for any performer, not even the devil himself, on any piano in the world”. ( 47) 29 years later he would repeat this assertion in slightly different words: “there is no person on this earth who can debatably play the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata at tempo 138”. ( 48)

In spite of all of this, we find a gradual change of attitude since 1970 (to which Brendel’s remarks above respond). There are an increasing number of voices calling for the feasibility of the tempo, or at least suggesting that one could come close, and who also point out that the work develops a very different and much more appropriate character at the quicker tempo. Charles Rosen argues against the maestoso character of the first movement in his influential study on the Classical style from 1971, and makes a plea for the “harshness” of the piece as well as for its rhythmic vitality. It is solely on these grounds that he sees its “reputation for greatness” justifiable. Any difficulties in understanding on the part of the listener he doesn’t see as being particularly problematic.

(…) there is no excuse, textual or musical, for making it sound majestic, like Allegro maestoso, and such an effect is a betrayal of the music. It is often done, because it mitigates the harshness of the work, but this harshness is clearly essential to it. A majestic tempo also saps the rhythmic vitality on which the movement depends. As we have seen, the actual material of the work is neither rich nor particularly expressive; it only lives up to its reputation for greatness if its rhythmic power is concentrated. And it is meant to be difficult to listen to.” ( 49)

In the very same year, Paul Badura-Skoda dismisses the idea in his guide to the piano sonatas that the Hammerklavier Sonata was something like the 9th Symphony for the piano. ( 50) In the commentary to his edition of Carl Czerny’s performance notes on Beethoven’s piano works (1963), he does note that “in Beethoven’s tempi, particularly in the first and third movements,” “an appropriate articulation would be impossible.” Still, he recommends just a 10–15% reduction from the original tempi, which would still be a comparatively fast tempo of about 120—approximately Friedrich Gulda’s tempo. ( 51)

In 1975, Joachim Kaiser adopts Badura-Skoda’s criticism of the idea of the Hammerklavier Sonata as the 9th Symphony of the piano in order to argue that the enormous technical, pianistic difficulties are inextricably bound to the aesthetic substance of the sonata and that an effortless overcoming of these challenges is in no way desirable.

“The virtual impossibility, the tremendous tension and exertion on the part of the performer is truly a part of the thing itself.” ( 52)
“Almost unattainable tempi that force the riskiest of entries, are not a choice in this sonata, but something that Beethoven demands.” ( 53)

Kaiser also asserts that Beethoven’s metronomic demands are close to possible, and even realizable in a way that makes musical sense. Further he refutes the opinion (held by, among others, Edwin Fischer) that:

“the beginning of the first movement quotes an unfinished celebratory cantata to the dedicatee of the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Erzherzog Rudolph von Österreich (“Vivat vivat Rudolfus”), which is why this Allegro movement should be played at the tempo of a celebratory cantata.” ( 54)

And he argues against Hans von Bülow’s assertion that the only justification for the given metronome markings is the “lack of sonority of the Viennese pianofortes of the time.”

Charles Rosen repeats his 1971 position rhetorically refined in his book Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. A Short Companion (2002). He argues that it is high time to abandon conceptions of the Hammerklavier Sonata as a “mammoth” or “pyramid.” The first movement is not “majestic”, it is not a “commemorative” work but rather an “explosion of energy.”

“In any case, I think we ought to abandon the view of this work as a kind of musical mammoth, or a construction comparable to the larger pyramids. (…) There is no reason to think that the first movement is majestic; that would go against the grain of most of it. It is not a commemorative work. More than anything else, it is an explosion of energy.” ( 55)

In general, since the 1970s, the conviction becomes increasingly common that it is virtually impossible to continue to ignore the only existing metronome marking given to a piano sonata by Beethoven (Rainer Riehn 1979 ( 56), Robert Taub 2002 ( 57)). One even encounters now statements of this kind from pianists, based on whose performances of the Hammerklavier Sonata one would not expect them from. In a conversation with Martin Meyer from 2007, András Schiff suggests “that one-sided monumentalizing performances have distorted the true image of the sonata.” Schiff recommends the “tempo precisely given by Beethoven in metronome numbers” as the antidote, and comes to the conclusion: “whoever takes the half note at 138 offers himself and the audience the opportunity to explore the dancing, rhythmically charged presence of the first movement.” ( 58) On his own recording, Schiff plays the first movement at an average tempo of half note = 104,4 (see Figure 5).

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20. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig.

21.    Carl Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag der sämtlichen Beethovenschen Klavierwerke nebst Czerny's “Erinnerungen an Beethoven”, edited with commentary by Paul Badura-Skoda, Vienna 1963, p. 58 (66).

22. Anton Schindler,    The Life of Beethoven, Including his Correspondence with his Friends, ed. Ignaz Moscheles, vol. 2, London 1841, p. 252.

23. Stuttgart and Berlin: J. G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger.

24. Otto Forberg, Leipzig.

25. G. Ricordi, Rome.

26. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig.

27. Stuttgart and Berlin: J. G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger.

28. B. Schott's Söhne, Mainz and Leipzig.

29. Samuil Feinberg’s text, ‘Betchoven. Sonata op. 106 (ispolnitel’skij kommentarij)’, was published in Moscow in 1968 in Voprosy fortepiannogo ispolnitel’stva, Vypusk 2, must however be much older as Feinberg died in 1962.

30. William S. Newman,    Performance Practices in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. An Introduction, New York 1971, p. 52.

31. Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, London.

32. Franz Gerhard Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries,    Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven, Koblenz 1838, pp. 148 ff.

33. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig.

34. Aleksandr Gol’denvejzer,    Tridcat’ dve sonaty Betchovena. Ispolnitel’skie kommentarii, Moscow 1966, p. 219; Martin Cooper,    Beethoven. The Last Decade 1817–1827, Oxford 1970, Revised and reprinted in paperback 1985, p. 159.

35. Carl Reinecke, Die Beethoven'schen Clavier-Sonaten. Briefe an eine Freundin, Leipzig 2nd edition 1897, p. 97.

36. Ibid, p. 101.

37. Ullstein, Berlin.

38. Edwin Fischer,    Ludwig van Beethovens Klaviersonaten. Ein Begleiter für Studierende und Liebhaber, Wiesbaden 1956, pp. 118 f.

39. Hermann Keller, ‘Die Hammerklaviersonate’, in: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, December 1958,    http://www.hermann-keller.org/plaintext/aufsaetzeinzeitschriftenundzeitungen/1958diehammerklaviersonate.html (last seen on January 3rd 2013).

40. Claudio Arrau,    Leben mit der Musik. Aufgezeichnet von Joseph Horowitz, Bern 1984, p. 185.

41. Feinberg, ‘Betchoven. Sonata op. 106’ (  as fn. 29).

42. Stephen Lehmann,    Rudolf Serkin: A Life, Oxford 2003, p. 80.

43. Newman, Performance Practices in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (  as fn. 30).

44. Cooper, Beethoven (  as fn. 34), p. 160.

45. Bruno Monsaingeon,    Sviatoslav Richter. Notebooks and Conversations, Princeton N. J. 2001, p. 208.

46. Alfred Brendel,    Nachdenken über Musik, Munich 1976, paperback edition 1982, p. 32; id.,    Ausgerechnet ich. Gespräche mit Martin Meyer, Munich 2001, p. 208.

47. Brendel, Nachdenken über Musik (  as fn. 46).

48. Brendel, Ausgerechnet ich (  as fn. 46).

49. Charles Rosen,    The Classical Style. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, New York 1971, Revised edition London and Boston 1980, pp. 421 f.

50. Paul Badura-Skoda, ‘Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier op. 106 B-Dur’, in: id. and Jörg Demus,    Die Klaviersonaten von Ludwig van Beethoven, Wiesbaden 1970, pp. 174 f.

51. Carl Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag (  as fn. 21), ‘Kommentar’, p. 6.

52. Joachim Kaiser,    Beethovens 32 Klaviersonaten und ihre Interpreten, Frankfurt/M. 1984, p. 508.

53. Ibid, p. 509.

54. Ibid.

55. Charles Rosen,    Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. A Short Companion, New Haven 2002, p. 219.

56. Rainer Riehn, ‘Eine musikalische Schlittenfahrt oder Wie man sich um Beethovens Anweisungen scherte’, in:    Beethoven. Das Problem der Interpretation, ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn (Musik-Konzepte 8), Munich 1979, pp. 97–103.

57. Robert Taub,    Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Portland, Oregon 2002, p. 211.

58.    Beethovens Klaviersonaten und ihre Deutung. “Für jeden Ton die Sprache finden …” – András Schiff im Gespräch mit Martin Meyer, Bonn 2007, p. 84.