The Große Fuge is a single-movement composition for string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven famous for its extreme technical demands on the players as well as for its unrelentingly introspective nature, even by the standards of his late period. It was written in 1825 and 1826, when the composer was completely deaf.
Beethoven originally composed the massive fugue as the final movement of his String Quartet No. 13 (Op. 130). However, the Fugue was so demanding of contemporary performers and unpopular with audiences that Beethoven's publisher, Matthias Artaria, urged him to write a new finale for the string quartet. Beethoven, although notorious for his stubborn personality and indifference to public opinion or taste, acquiesced to his publisher's request on this occasion and published the Fugue as a separate opus number, opus 133. He then wrote a finale that replaced the Fugue, which is considerably lighter in character, more akin to the other movements of the opus 130 quartet. Today, performances of the quartet include either the Fugue or its replacement movement.
When the work was first performed the audience demanded encores of only two of the middle movements of the quartet. Beethoven, enraged, was reported to have growled, "And why didn't they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!"
Most 19th century critics dismissed the work. Daniel Gregory Mason called it "repellent", and Louis Spohr called it, along with the rest of Beethoven's late works, an "indecipherable, uncorrected horror". However critical opinion of the work has risen steadily since the beginning of the 20th century. The work is now considered among Beethoven's greatest achievements. Igor Stravinsky said of it, "[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."
The quartet opens with a 24-bar Overtura, which introduces one of the two themes of the fugue, a tune closely related to the one which opens the string quartet opus 132. Beethoven then plunges into a violent and dissonant double fugue, with a second subject of dramatically leaping tones, and the four instruments of the quartet bursting out in triplets, dotted figures, and cross-rhythms.
Following this opening fugal section is a series of sections, in contrasting keys, rhythms and tempi. Sections often break off suddenly, without real preparation, to create a structural texture that is jagged and surprising. Toward the end, there is a slowing, with long pauses, leading into a recapitulation of the overture, and on to a rushing finale that ends the movement.
Like some of Beethoven's other late finales, such as the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony, the Fugue can be seen as a multi-movement form contained within a single large movement. Each of the smaller sections is built on a transformation of the original theme. In addition, the Große Fuge is an example of a compositional process Beethoven explored late in life: a combination of elements of variation form, sonata form, and fugue. The lyrical section in G♭ has the weight of an independent slow movement; some commentators have even attempted to analyze the entire piece in terms of sonata form.
Arrangement for piano duet
When Beethoven detached the movement from the quartet, he still wanted the music to be as accessible as possible. The way to do this in the days before electronic or mechanical sound reproduction was to make an arrangement for piano four-hands; many of his larger-scale scores were made available for home music-making in this fashion. The publisher commissioned someone to make this arrangement, but Beethoven was so unhappy at the result that he undertook his own version, which was published as op. 134.
Rediscovery of manuscript
Manuscript of the Große Fuge arranged by Beethoven for piano four hands.
In July 2005 an authentic 1826 Beethoven manuscript titled "Große Fuge" (a piano four-hands version of the op. 133 string quartet finale) was found by a Pennsylvania librarian at the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. This work, adapted for four hands, is known as opus 134. The manuscript had been missing for 115 years. It was auctioned by Sotheby's Auction House on 1 December 2005; it was bought for GBP 1.12 million (USD 1.95 million) from a then unknown buyer. The purchaser of the manuscript has since revealed himself as Bruce Kovner, a publicly shy multi-billionaire who donated the manuscript - along with 139 other original and rare pieces of music - to the Juilliard School of Music in February 2006. It is since available in their online manuscript collection. The manuscript's known provenance is that it was listed in an 1890 catalogue and sold at an auction in Berlin to a Cincinnati, Ohio industrialist, whose daughter gave it and other manuscripts including a Mozart Fantasia to a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1952. It is not known how the Beethoven manuscript came to be in the possession of the library.
Reception and musical influence
The Große Fuge was, and remains today, one of the less immediately accessible of Beethoven's compositions, because of its combination of dissonance and contrapuntal complexity. It is "as incomprehensible as Chinese," wrote a critic of the first performance of the work. "The attitude of mind in which most people listen to chamber music must undergo a radical change" in order to understand this piece, wrote Joseph de Marliave almost a century later. At the same time, the work epitomizes the profound, complex character of Beethoven's later works. It is quoted in Alfred Schnittke's third string quartet, as well as in other contemporary compositions.
The abstruse, difficult character of the piece is exemplified in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, Fifty Degrees Below. In one scene, a main character maniacally vacuums his house while listening to the Große Fuge and the fugal movement from the Hammerklavier sonata at the same time, playing on different stereos in separate rooms, both cranked up to ear-splittingly high volumes. The Große Fuge also figures into a chapter in Rose Alley, a novel by Jeremy M. Davies, in which a character whose perception of sound is augmented by a traumatically induced form of sensorineural hearing loss, has her first orgasm "aurally induced" by a performance of Beethoven's composition. Davis's reference of the piece functions on multiple levels of meaning to combine several themes built throughout both the chapter and the novel as a whole, including measurement and value (Große), perception, attraction, counterpuntal composition, sexuality, différance, and identity. The poet Mark Doty wrote of the feelings engendered by the Große Fuge:
What does it mean, chaos
gathered into a sudden bronze sweetness,
an October flourish, and then that moment
denied, turned acid, disassembling,
- Mark Doty, Grosse Fuge (1995)
- ^ Kerman, in Winters and Martin (1994), p. 27.
- ^ Not the well-known publisher Artaria & Co. For a full account of Beethoven's decision to publish the fugue separately, see Solomon (1977), pp. 448-449
- ^ Solomon (1977) p. 447
- ^ Kerman, Joseph (1979). The Beethoven Quartets. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 294. ISBN 0393009092. http://books.google.com/books?id=deTx46EhmFoC&lpg=PA294&dq=Daniel%20Gregory%20Mason%20beethoven%20repellent&pg=PA294#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
- ^ Miller (2006), p.44
- ^ a b Daniel J. Wakin (2005-10-13). "A Historic Discovery, in Beethoven's Own Hand". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/arts/music/13beet.html. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
- ^ "Handwritten Beethoven score resurfaces". CBC. 2005-10-13. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2005/10/13/beethoven_051013.html. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
- ^ http://www.juilliardmanuscriptcollection.org/
- ^ Miller (2006), p. 44.
- ^ de Marliave (1928), p. 220
- ^ Robinson (2005)
- ^ Davis, Jeremy M. Rose Alley. Counterpath Press; Denver, 2009.
- ^ Mark Doty, "Grosse Fuge" in Atlantis (1995) Harper Perennial, ISBN 0060951060
- First published edition of the fugue was by Matthias Artaria, 1825. The fugue was republished by Breitkopf and Hartel in 1866 in Ludwig van Beethoven's Werke Series 6. An Urtext edition is also published by Henle.
- de Marliave, Joseph, Beethoven's Quartets (1928), reprinted 1961 by Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-20694-7
- Kerman, Joseph, The Beethoven Quartets. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1966. ISBN 0393009092
- Miller, Lucy, Adams to Zemlinsky (2006) Concert Artists Guild, ISBN 1-892862-09-3
- Robinson, Kim Stanley, Fifty Degrees Below (2007) Bantam, ISBN 0553585819
- Solomon, Maynard, Beethoven (1978) Granada Publishing, ISBN 0-586-05189-9
- Winter, Robert and Martin, Robert (editors) The Beethoven Quartet Companion (1994) University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-20120-4
- Stowell, Robert, editor (2003). The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80194-X.