Dedicated to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, the sonata was written primarily from the summer of 1817 to the late autumn of 1818, towards the end of a fallow period in Beethoven’s compositional career. It represents the spectacular emergence of many of the themes that were to recur in Beethoven’s late period: the reinvention of traditional forms, such as sonata form; a brusque humour; and a return to pre-classical compositional traditions, including an exploration of modal harmony and reinventions of the fugue within classical forms.
The Hammerklavier also set a precedent for the length of solo compositions (performances typically take about 45 to 50 minutes). While orchestral works such as symphonies and concerti had often contained movements of 15 or even 20 minutes for many years, few single movements in solo literature had a span such as the Hammerklavier’s Adagio sostenuto.The sonata’s name comes from Beethoven’s later practice of using German rather than Italian words for musical terminology. (Hammerklavier literally means “hammer-keyboard”, and is still today the German name for the fortepiano, the predecessor of the modern pianoforte.) It comes from the title page of the work, “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier”, which means “Grand sonata for the fortepiano”. The more sedate Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 has the same description, but the epithet has come to apply to the Sonata No. 29 only.The work also makes extensive use of the una corda pedal, with Beethoven giving for his time unusually detailed instructions when to use it.
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