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

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135

Something troubles me in how Beethoven–and artists in general–appears in the media. Artists are always portrayed as having an imbalanced personality–being prone to fits of fancy, egotism, and violent outbursts–and they seemingly stumble along until God opens up the top of their head and pours in “inspiration.” From everything I’ve read by artists, you have to work years to master your craft before you have the ability to take that inspiration and package it into a great work of art.

Indeed, Stravinsky said of himself that he rarely started with inspiration. Instead, he began with the constraints and rules of music and the creativity came in as he used his tools and talents to discover the work of art. Ravel said it was a matter of mastering the craft so that you knew what to leave out as being extraneous, and spent hours working and reworking over his compositions. The best example is the sculptor who sees the work in the marble and discovers it by removing what is not needed.

There is a story about a rich man who goes to an artist and commissions him to paint a portrait of the man’s pet rooster. He leaves the animal with the artist, pays him a handsome sum and departs. Months pass. The rich man has not heard anything from the artist and so visits the artists studio. He asks whether the portrait is done. The artist tells him to wait a moment. He sets up his easel and canvas, and dashes off an exquisite picture of the animal. The rich man is furious. “You’ve kept me waiting for this long, doing nothing and now you spend five minutes and expect me to pay you all this money?” The artist tells the rich man to follow him into the next room. When he turns on the light, the rich man sees that the room is full of hundreds of sketches of chickens.

I’m also thinking of the Japanese artist who stares at the piece of rice paper before him as he paints the picture in his mind. It becomes a mental discipline. What’s interesting to note is that the medium he uses imposes that rule on him. Rice paper instantly absorbs the ink, so he cannot afford the luxury of making a mistake.

It would have been valuable if someone had explained this to me around the time I discovered Beethoven’s late quartets, in the Fall of 1973. Unfortunately, I shared the popular notion of how artists are supposed to behave. As I have confessed, I thought the way to create was to get drunk–thereby knocking down the barriers to feeling and emotion–and works of beauty would spill out. Fortunately after quite a long time of producing crap, I decided to change my tack. So, over the years, I’ve worked hard to improve my skills as a writer–by taking classes, by reading, and of course by just writing.

What I have learned now, by practicing Tai Chi by the way, is the need to balance the logical and emotive. Now when I have an idea, I can usually translate it coherently and if I can’t think of anything to write about, if I just sit down and start, usually something pops into my head.

Now what about today’s piece? The Opus 135 was the last piece Beethoven composed. Of it he wrote: “It will be the last and it has given me much trouble.” I find it a fitting capstone to a life devoted to creating works of beauty that are also intellectually satisfying. The first movement reminds me a bit of his sixth symphony. The second, marked Vivace, has a wonderfully syncopated section that he repeats a number of times. To me it has the cheery mood of a person in the full of life, not smug, but just happy to be alive and at having attained a few high spots along the way.

In the last movement, Beethoven alternates between two melodies with almost diametrically opposed feelings. The first is a happy, jaunty, youthfully fresh sounding piece. The second sounds fraught with pain and sorrow–almost like some of the bleak parts of Vivaldi’s Winter from the Four Seasons. Beethoven moves us back and forth between these two extremes and thank heavens as he nears the finish, he returns to the happy sounding one. On the last page, he introduces a pizzicato section and then resolves on a beautiful chord. Most satisfying.

Download MP3 or buy CD of String Quartet Op. 135 on Amazon

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 fixed 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 is impossible to play!

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

%d bloggers like this: