Beethoven’s younger brother, Caspar Carl, a bank clerk of modest success in Vienna, died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1815. Though Caspar seems to have lived with her contentedly, his wife, Johanna, was a woman of sullied reputation whom the composer characterized as “wicked and vicious…The Queen of the Night.” Beethoven felt that she was unfit to rear the couple’s nine-year-old child, Karl, and he persuaded his brother to name him as the boy’s guardian. Two days before he died, Caspar Carl included this provision in his will. During the following hours, however, he had misgivings about taking Karl from his mother, and added a codicil that, in effect, named his wife and brother as co-guardians, thereby contradicting the earlier provision.
Thus ensued nearly five years of bitter legal battles between Beethoven and Johanna over the custody of Karl, who was mired in misery all the while by the unsettled state of his young life. The case was first decided in Beethoven’s favor in February 1816. Johanna instituted subsequent proceedings (usually after Karl had fled to her from the smothering attentions of his uncle), and the courts again formally took up the matter in 1818. Litigation dragged on for the next two years. The eventual settlement in 1820 was painful for Beethoven, even though he won the suite.
The proceedings also revealed that he was without noble ancestors, a lifelong belief that he held tenaciously until it was publicly exploded in court. With declining health, shattered hearing, and family turmoil sapping so much of Beethoven’s energy during that time, it is little wonder that half decade was the least productive period of his creative life…the only major works he completed were the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte and the piano sonata in B-flat, the Hammerklavier.
The Hammerklavier Sonata is epic in scale yet inexhaustibly subtle in detail. Its four movements– a sonata-form Allegro with a cantabile second theme, a scherzo with a contrasting central trio in quick duple meter, an Adagio in sonata form of almost unparalleled sublimity, and a vast fugue that employs virtually every contrapuntal technique–encompass and bring into balance an enormous range of emotional states that find no counterpart in mere words. Opposites are here joined. The sonata contains the broadest slow movement that Beethoven ever wrote, as well as one of his most minutely realized fugues; the work is firmly rooted in traditional formal procedures, yet seeks constantly to break their fetters; those who perform the Hammerklavier must bring to it both the physical endurance of an athlete and the most exalted interpretative skills of the artist.