The Kennedy Center

Grosse Fuge (Op. 133)

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Thomas May

The popular image of Ludwig van Beethoven as a firebrand who defied conventional expectations is generally associated with the so-called "heroic" style from the middle of his career-more or less from around the time just before the Eroica up through the Eighth Symphony in 1812. Yet the truly radical extent of the composer's originality is to be found in the sequence of string quartets from his final years. Nowhere else is Beethoven so far ahead of his time as here, where simple labels simply cease to have any relevance.

Indeed the work that begins our program deeply puzzled even his most loyal disciples. Anton Schindler, that dependably unreliable secretary/chronicler of the master, can at least probably be trusted to have captured the essential reaction the Grosse Fuge elicited when he referred to it as "the monster of all quartet music." This music even prompted a rare case of Beethoven removing a piece from its original context and agreeing to replace it with a more deliberately "accessible" movement in response to his publisher's pleas.

In 1822, a dozen years after Beethoven had last written a string quartet, his Russian admirer Prince Nicholas Galitzin asked for a new set on very generous terms. This ranks as one of the most significant commissions in the history of music, since it launched the entire sequence of late quartets. Beethoven produced three for the Prince between 1824 and 1825, by which point he had become so obsessed with the medium that he immediately embarked on two more. An important feature of his radical rethinking of musical substance and purpose occurs on the level of formal architecture. For the Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major (Op. 130) Beethoven expanded his design from four to six movements. Even more strikingly, as the capstone he crafted the largest-scale single movement of all his quartets, the Grosse Fuge (the "Grand Fugue").

It was in this form that Op. 130 was originally introduced in 1826. But with the Grosse Fuge as its finale, lasting at least a quarter hour, Beethoven's contemporaries felt he was inexplicably overshadowing the rest of the quartet. The composer relented and wrote an entirely new finale in the fall of 1826-half a year before his death. The last major composition he completed and relatively lightweight and cheerful in spirit, this substitute movement brings Op. 130 to a far different conclusion. Beethoven went on to prepare a separate four-hand piano arrangement of the Grosse Fuge (Op. 134), while the quartet movement itself was published on its own as Op. 133.

When it comes to performances of the quartet, the debate continues over whether to present the revised version or the original format Beethoven envisioned for Op. 130, with its monumental concluding movement. Meanwhile, the Grosse Fuge has developed an independent life in performance, whether as part of chamber music programs or in the concert hall. Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner (1863-1942)-the first to make commercial recordings of Beethoven's complete symphonies-fashioned the well-known arrangement of the Grosse Fuge for string orchestra that we hear. Indeed, the robustness and dramatic range of sonorities the composer exploits in his original quartet scoring prove especially suitable for such an amplified treatment.

Much of the mystique of Beethoven's late style, which reaches its epitome in this music, results from the paradoxical mixture of contradictory elements. Formal experimentation accommodates a dialogue with tradition, while old-fashioned or even archaic procedures are juxtaposed with startling innovations. The musical content, meanwhile, spins without warning from the elated vision of a mystic to earthy, gruff humor. All of these traits can be heard in the Grosse Fuge, into which the composer channels his years of intensive engagement with the complex contrapuntal style of his Baroque forbears-but on his own terms.

At the most basic level, a fugue involves the art of "imitative" writing-statements of a theme by voices that are staggered sequentially (as a canon)-in which the lines independently expressed by each voice dovetail into a larger unity; many episodes and permutations of the theme occur along the way. Beethoven actually presents a double fugue: a fugue based on two themes (or "subjects"), which are unfolded simultaneously. Despite the connotations of strict discipline and even academicism that have long been associated with the fugue as both a form and a style, Beethoven devises an unprecedented design marked by extraordinary freedom and unusual juxtapositions, and not all of the Grosse Fuge is actually fugal.

In the opening minute, for example, Beethoven gives us a preview of the entire piece. Calling this first section an "Overtura," he starts with a unison statement by the strings and presents, in reverse, the different guises of the enigmatic fugal theme that are the substance of what is to come in four ensuing sections. At the end of this "Overtura," the first violins spell out the theme, followed by a pause and the beginning of the fugue proper. A thorny, agitated countertheme plays against the theme throughout the first section. Forceful accents and unrelenting rhythmic propulsion contribute to the music's thorny, aggressive character. Notice how Beethoven uses rhythmic as well as thematic counterpoint (playing units of two against three).

The atmosphere changes dramatically with a shift to a new key and tempo, along with subdued volume, though the fugue theme winds its way into the flowing lyricism of this section. Another stark change initiates a scherzo-ish treatment of the theme, which now skips and trills with animated energy. The Grosse Fuge has inspired a vast range of analytical interpretations, including a reading of its design as a sequence of variations or a four-movement-work-in-one (akin to the Ninth Symphony's colossal final movement), with the most complex writing reserved for the ensuing "finale" section. Beethoven reworks all of the preceding material, atomizing it, fusing it, refragmenting it, halting without warning, recharging the musical momentum. At last a unison statement of the theme provides the breakthrough for the coda, and Beethoven rounds off the whole kaleidoscopic experience with a "back-to-normal" cadence-as if to remind us that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on...."