Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Nationality: German
Baptized: December 17, 1770, Bonn
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna (age 56)

String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, Op. 133, Grosse Fuge

(for 2 violins, viola and cello)
Overtura: Allegro - Meno mosso e moderato - Allegro - Fuga: [Allegro] - Meno mosso e moderato - Allegro molto e con brio - Allegro
Composed: 1826 (age 55-56)
Duration: 16 minutes (approximately)
11 recordings, 11 videos
Alexander String Quartet, Animation by Stephen Malinowski
Arditti Quartet
Brentano Quartet
Emerson String Quartet
Guarneri Quartet
Merel Quartet
Quartetto Italiano
Takács Quartet
Talich Quartet
Tokyo String Quartet
Unknown Ensemble, Animation by Stephen Malinowski

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

Grosse Fuge (The Grand Fugue), Op. 133, 1825

At the largely unsuccessful premiere of the original String Quartet, Op. 130 during Beethoven’s lifetime, the audience, in typical fashion, demanded an encore of two middle movements. A disgruntled Beethoven supposedly exclaimed, “And why didn’t they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!” As mentioned earlier, Beethoven and his publisher agreed to remove the fugue substituting an alternate finale. The fugue was eventually published in 1827 as an entirely separate work bearing the opus number 133 and the title Grosse Fuge (Grand Fugue). The audience members at the premiere were apparently not the only “cattle” with regards to this monumental piece of music. Reactions from personages of high musical cultivation over time have yielded such responses as “repellent”, “incomprehensible, like Chinese”, “a confusion of Babel” and so forth. Quite a different reaction came from Igor Stravinsky who famously remarked about the Grosse Fuge, “[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Recall that Beethoven wrote this fugue in 1825.

The musical technique known by the name “fugue” goes back as far as the Renaissance and the keyboard music of the late 16th century. It has never gone out of fashion at least where music is cultivated by the learned practitioner. The most famous and possibly greatest composer of fugues was Johann Sebastian Bach particularly in his compositions for organ and keyboard including the absolute touchstone collection of fugues under the collective name The Well-Tempered Clavier. Haydn wrote at least four fugues specifically as string quartet finales thereby setting a precedent that has inspired chamber composers from Mozart to Shostakovich with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schoenberg along the way. Beethoven is arguably the greatest master of the fugue after Bach and fugues or fughetto passages appear all through his piano sonatas, string quartets and symphonies. As for setting a Grand Fugue as the finale of a string quartet, Beethoven was well within traditional precedent. What was unconventional, indeed, confounding about the Grosse Fuge was its length, its emotional intensity and its extreme obsession with dissonance. If “difficult” was ever perfectly applied to Beethoven’s music, the Grosse Fuge is the single most deserving work beyond question.

Clocking in at around sixteen minutes, the Grosse Fuge is far longer than any fugue Bach wrote. As a compositional form, it is way more than a conventional fugue. As with much of Beethoven’s late music, the fugue has been analyzed from many different perspectives yielding multiple structural interpretations. A relatively simple and useful breakdown will suffice here.

The Grand Fugue readily divides into five parts. The first part titled Overture is a series of brief snippets that on first blush seem rather unrelated. Closer inspection reveals that it comprises a kind of table of contents, a terse preview of what is to come. Each of the snippets alludes to a section of the ensuing fugue, curiously, in reverse order.

The second part is the fugue proper, where, according to the tradition of the fugue, a melodic theme or subject is introduced by one player then picked up in imitation by each successive player until all four players are engaged in a complicated mesh of counterpoint with the subject at the center of a discussion of truly equal parts. Beethoven makes things a bit more interesting from the start, however, in that he has not one but two subjects going at the same time from the very beginning, in essence, a double fugue. Whatever technical labels apply, it is a relentless imbroglio of urgent, dark musical counterpoint whose mood and chaotic complexity is nothing short of marvelously overwhelming.

The third part of the Grosse Fuge is a readily apparent section of repose and contrast to the blistering fugue. Where the fugue is spiky, dark, minor and dissonant, the third section is bright, major, soothing and lyrical all at a slower pace. Really a kind of fugue in itself, close inspection reveals that the music is built from exactly the same material as the primary fugue ingeniously transformed into a field of bright flowers swaying gently amidst the barbed wire and rubble.

The fourth part is the return of the brutal fugue. Hardly a repeat, here Beethoven subjects the fugal materials to the traditional battery of ingenious transformations including making the subject longer, shorter, playing it upside down and even backwards. Beethoven applies so much variation to the material that, in places, the music appears to explode into complete random chaos fraught with harsh dissonance, skewed rhythmic patterns and seemingly ungraspable complexity all subsumed in a terrifying darkness that suggests the word apocalyptic. The fifth and final part is Beethoven coming to our rescue (as he always does), where the fugue dissipates, the happy music from the middle reappears and everything is transformed into bright triumph if not outright humor. Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing and exactly how it would affect us and here he jovially slaps us on the back as if to say “everything is alright” and “wasn’t that a great ride!” Most commentaries fail to mention one curious fact about the Grosse Fuge: It was not Beethoven’s first. The final movement of the Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat known as the “Hammerklavier” from 1818 follows nearly the identical formal structure yielding a monstrous fugue of practically the same length, albeit in a much brighter mood. It is illuminating to hear them side by side.