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Piano Sonata No. 1 "La Hammerklavier"

Juri Seo
30 min
I. La Hammerklavier
II. Ricercare

In Beethoven’s Op. 106 “Hammerklavier” Sonata, rather than hearing the distant, god-given genius of musical legend, I hear an individual confronting the full extent of his limitations. The music toils at the edge of its creator’s potential. Beethoven’s self-imposed challenges of maintaining structural integrity—despite an ever-expanding form, complex tonal syntax, and painstaking counterpoint—fight with the mad force of his musical subconscious. The result is a remarkable heightening of expression: tempestuous, tender, and wickedly comic.

(Not surprisingly, Op. 106 is notoriously difficult to play; its wide leaps and dense material demand not only technical virtuosity, but the courage to face the possibility of a massive public failure.)

Despite many overt references, my “La Hammerklavier” sonata is not “about” Op. 106. I wanted to write music that expressed more abstract ideas—struggle, optimism, and beauty—using Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” as a focusing lens.

My first movement is in sonata form. It distorts the famous opening leap of Beethoven’s sonata with a “wrong” chord that implies two different keys at once. The rhythms trip, as if mimicking a bad performance. Stylistically eclectic quotations—taken from all four of Beethoven’s movements—alter the affects of the original, often humorously. Following the example of the late sonatas, my sonata has a fugal development. A lighthearted coda follows the recapitulation.

The second movement, “Ricercare,” is mostly based on the Adagio third movement of Op. 106. The title “Ricercare" has both literal and historical meanings. My ricercare “searches” for the third movement (ricercare literally means “to search”), and it develops what it finds contrapuntally (ricercare movements traditionally unfold contrapuntally). I wanted the movement to capture the feeling of listening to Op. 106 in a dream, of not being able to remember it precisely. After much wandering, it eventually finds a theme by Beethoven—but it is a “wrong” one that combines two separate phrases from the original. Ten variations on this wrong theme follow. The seventh variation provides the only exact quotation in this movement—a slowly descending melody over Beethoven’s enchanted Neapolitan chord. The climactic final variation is a gigue (à la J.S. Bach) on top of the BECH (Bb-E-C-B) motive. It epitomizes the Bb-B struggle manifest in Op. 106, and throws a little nod to my friend Steve Beck, the wonderful pianist for whom this piece was written.

Piano Sonata No. 1, “La Hammerklavier,” was composed in the winter of 2015-2016 -Juri Seo

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