Ludwig van Beethoven: The Great Fugue, Opus 133

I’ve devoted the last several posts to Beethoven’s late string quartets. The reason is that they came into my life in the fall of 1973 and I became fixated on them. I’m sure a musicologist could write reams on each one–not only by analyzing their structure but also on how their influence shows up in the works of later composers. In Stravinsky’s book, Themes and Conclusions, for example, he notes how Wagner wrote glowingly of the quartets, and how some phrases turn up in Tristan und Isolde.

Beethoven wrote The Great Fugue as the finale for his Quartet in B Flat Major Opus 130. He had written that piece under commission to Prince Nicolas Glitzin, whose father was the Russian ambassador to Vienna in 1826. It turned out to be too “dissonant” for the listeners of the time and for performers too difficult. For that reason, Beethoven’s publisher suggested he write a different finale, which he did for 15 ducats. He later wrote a piano duet arrangement of the fugue, which was later published as Opus 134. Supposedly, that piece is impossible to play, yet here’s a version for two pianists:

It is funny how what is one century’s dissonance is another century’s perfection. Parts of the first section–the overture–of this piece sound like they come straight out of the fourth movement of ninth symphony, where the full orchestra plays fast and loud while the entire chorus repeats the Freude schoene Gotterfunken stanza. All four instruments play such different melodies, in different rhythms, but the raw emotion that comes through is breathtaking. But after that, it slows and then slips into the fugue, which though similarly complex, has a lighter feeling to it. He does bring back the statement from the opening of the movement once. However, for the most part, the last section of Great Fugue skips along at a brisk 6/8 rhythm, and he ends on a triumphant up-bow.

It seems odd to mention what was going on in my life during the fall semester of my freshman year at university, when I first heard the Great Fugue. I had become so miserable living among science majors, that I decided to transfer to the extension of Indiana University near my home town. My plan was to go there for the spring semester and then transfer to the main campus in Bloomington the following fall. My parents were not happy that I was breaking the tradition of my three brothers going to Purdue, but I convinced them. For the most part, I paid for my education by working in factories during the summer, and I wanted to study something that interested me at the time. Not that science doesn’t; I just had more desire to learn about art, literature, and philosophy.

Thirty-eight years later, I can say that I would do it all over again. We have a lifetime to continue learning. Statistics say that most people will change jobs three to four times in their life. Since I left graduate school, I have had about 10 jobs in three or four different areas. I believe it was having developed a love of learning new things that allowed me to make the transition from one to another. How can you get bored when there is always something new to discover? This is what keeps artists going, I believe.

I’ll let Stranvinsky have the last word on Beethoven’s late string quartets:

“These quartets are my highest articles of musical belief (which is a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways and meanings of art–as a musician of my era thinks of art and has tried to learn it–as temperature is to life. They are a triumph over temporality, too, possibly a longer-lasting one, as events are threatening to prove, than other triumphs in other arts, for at least they cannot be bombed, melted down, or bull-dozed by progress.”

Beethoven Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Grosse Fugue in Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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