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Prelude to a Fugue

Reflections on Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Opus 133


The listener who wants to experiment with the ideas of “musical alchemy” can’t find much better material than Beethoven’s late quartets. Among those works, the most difficult movement to play and to listen to must be the Grosse Fuge. So it seems that if one is going to attempt the ascent of the musical Olympus, one must tackle it. This article from the late 1980s offers a hand to fellow climbers (or venturers into the Black Hole).


In contemplating the fate of those mythic works, Beethoven’s late string quartets, more than one writer has had recourse to mythic images, evoking perhaps the desert Sphinx awaiting an Oedipus to fathom her riddles, or the tomb of Christian Rosenkreuz with its legend ‘Post CXX annos patebo’ (‘I will be opened after 120 years.’) For the first time in history a composer has genuinely written for posterity, as distinct from those who, like J. S. Bach and Schubert, wrote for a small but appreciative coterie and later found universal acclaim.

The peculiar beauties of these works were becoming perceptible by the mid-nineteenth century to the most advanced ears, trained in the schools of Berlioz and Liszt. A century after their creation, in the 1920s, complete cycles of Beethoven’s quartets were being given, and the last ones were the cynosure of the avant-garde. Aldous Huxley’s heroes listened to them on 78 rpm records, and T. S. Eliot referred to them in the title and form of his own last poems. Since the Second World War—after exactly 120 years, in fact—they have been common currency among the musically educated, and no historian would hesitate now to rank them among the very greatest achievements of Western civilization. This does not mean, however, that they are understood, any more than Botticelli’s symbolic paintings or Shakespeare’s last plays are understood: each epoch has its own response to such works, which in themselves seem to be inexhaustible. The different epochs betray by their responses their own concerns, their particular strengths and weaknesses. Walter Pater’s Primavera is not Edgar Wind’s. Likewise Hector Berlioz’s reactions to the late quartets, in the 1860s, are poles apart from Professor Joseph Kerman’s, in the 1960s. The style of reaction has changed, as the styles of dress and of discourse have changed, though the vibrations that strike eye and ear remain, like the human body, invariant. Anyone who reacted to works of art as Pater and Berlioz did would simply not be published nowadays.

If there is a lesson in this, it is humility. Beethoven’s music will certainly outlast us, and our reaction to it will be a historical curiosity, if it does not seem plain idiocy, a century hence. If I write about it, it is merely to represent the few people who do not accept the current fashion, according to which musical understanding is best served by the careful analysis of note-patterns.

Let us recall, for completeness’ sake, that Beethoven wrote five quartets in the years 1825–26, and that they are:

Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 127

Quartet in B-flat major, Opus 130, which includes the Grosse Fuge (‘Great Fugue’) later published as Opus 133

Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131

Quartet in A minor, Opus 132

Quartet in F major, Opus 135

This article centres on the Grosse Fuge because it is the most problematic of all these difficult works, and has been the slowest in finding favour with players and listeners; indeed, one might say that it is the problem work of all time. Its history, in brief, is that it was composed in 1825 as the sixth and last movement of the Quartet in B-flat, Opus 130. At the quartet’s first performance in 1826, the reception was so uncomprehending that Beethoven accepted his publisher’s suggestion to issue the fugue separately (hence its designation as ‘Opus 133’), and to supply the quartet with an alternative finale.

Until comparatively recently, the B-flat quartet was generally performed with this much easier and shorter close. But the new concern for historical authenticity has changed the situation, to the extent that performers of Opus 130 now feel that they have to excuse themselves for not playing the Grosse Fuge as a finale—for not going the whole hog, as it were, and honouring Beethoven’s original plan.

A performance of the Grosse Fuge, especially at the end of an already long quartet, puts a strain on the listeners and makes an extraordinary demand on the performers. The strain involved is not like that, say, of listening to Die Götterdämmerung or of singing Bach’s B-minor Mass. Unlike those great works, the Grosse Fuge is, for much of its length, quite disagreeable to listen to. The four instruments are made to play fast and fortissimo for page after page without any respite whatever from the dense and tortured progress of the fugue, or rather of two separate but related fugues. The questions facing both players and listeners are, first, why Beethoven should have chosen to put them through this physically and emotionally exhausting ordeal, and secondly why he should have capped a quartet containing so many lovely moments with such a horrid and chaotic finale. Of course the same question is posed by countless works of the twentieth century, but those who listen to the quartets of Schoenberg or Bartok at least know what they are getting into from the start.

At this point I must review the events of the Grosse Fuge to refresh the memories of those who already know the piece. Others, if they read to the end, may feel curious enough to listen to it. Analysts have divided the movement in various ways on the basis of the adventures that befall its different themes, but I approach it here purely from the point of view of the adventures it offers the listener.

1. In an introduction, called by Beethoven ‘Overtura’, the composer pretends to be showing us his sketchbook: we hear several different ideas for beginning a piece. Beethoven had done this in his piano sonatas Opus 101 and Opus 106, as well as in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. The presumption that listeners should have any interest in a composer’s mental processes might seem very modern, but probably similar things were done in the tradition of extemporized performance, of which Beethoven was an acknowledged master.

2. After those four (or five) false starts comes the first fugue (in B-flat), very long and directed to be played so loudly that it is well-nigh impossible to follow the interweaving of parts as one expects to do in a fugue. Until one knows it extremely well, one’s reaction is bound to be puzzlement and annoyance, perhaps ending in anaesthesia.

3. A serene Andante (in G-flat) follows as the grossest possible contrast to the fugue, contradicting it in volume, in metre, in speed, texture and key.

4. The fast pace resumes in a light and tuneful scherzo (in B-flat), which might well have ended the movement were Beethoven not to cut it short after 32 bars, in order to put us through the whole process once more.

5. A second fugue (in A-flat), more condensed, more chaotic and no less noisy than the first, brings intensive development of the fugal themes.

6. A second version of the Andante (in A-flat) is not soft and tentative but full-blooded and ranging over the whole compass of the instruments.

7. The scherzo returns unchanged (in B-flat), then develops further within the same mood.

8. Themes from 1, 2, and 3 are briefly reviewed in the manner of the Overtura.

9. The scherzo mood resumes and ends the work.

The 32 bars of the scherzo (4) are the only music in the whole Grosse Fuge that is repeated note for note. I have found no explanation of this, though it is mentioned as an anomaly by some commentators. To my mind, this is the key to comprehending the work. I say ‘comprehending’ advisedly, as distinct from the ‘understanding’ of the analyst, because my eventual goal is to experience this piece of music in purely musical terms, that is to say without any visualizations or verbalizations. I want to grasp it as a whole, so that I can listen with full consent to the sequence of its parts. The ingenuities of Beethoven’s fugal technique I take for granted; I can see them in the score, but I am not interested in clogging my mind by thinking about them while I am listening. One can find ingenuities anywhere, but nowhere in music is there a comparable sequence of those ambiences, atmospheres, or states of soul which for brevity I call ‘moods’.

Among the many moods that Beethoven cultivated to perfection in his best-known and best-loved works, I would single out three. The first of these is the mood of heroic struggle and the conquest of superhuman obstacles. One hears it in the Third (‘Eroica’) and Fifth Symphonies, the ‘Appassionata’ piano sonata, and many other works from Beethoven’s middle period (1803–17). One cannot think about these titanic works without remembering Beethoven’s own struggles against deafness, loneliness, and despair. This is the Beethoven who will always hold centre-stage even for the most unreflective listener, for few can resist being swept up in the vortex of his Promethean energy.

The second mood is best described as ‘reverence’. In the slow movements of the early and middle works it is often announced by hymnlike themes,as for instance in the ‘Appassionata’, the Fifth Piano Concerto (‘Emperor’), or the second ‘Rasumovsky’ quartet. Beethoven seems to be advising us that this is holy ground, and that we had better conduct ourselves fittingly. Later he will discover more subtle ways to create this mood.

The conquering hero has a right to expect his reward, and traditionally this has been a triumphal celebration. Beethoven’s middle-period works usually end with movements in this mood: the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and the ‘Emperor’ are obvious examples, and even the Ninth Symphony has recourse to it in the end. This is perhaps the mood that has worn the least well in an age of disillusion and anti-heroism.

The works of Beethoven’s last period (1818–1826) open up new dimensions of the titanic and reverential moods, especially in the Missa solemnis and its coeval piano sonatas Opus 106, 109, 110 and 111. In the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata, Opus 106, an extremely elevated slow movement is followed by a fugue of unprecedented length, in which the struggle is not only depicted objectively in the music, but also incarnated in the enormous difficulties it causes the player. This brings us to an important point. Beethoven’s piano sonatas and chamber music were not composed for performance at public concerts, but were written for connoisseurs to play to themselves, or at most to other connoisseurs. The string quartets were written for the private or semi-private string quartet parties that flourished in a golden age of gifted amateurs. Beethoven’s first consideration is therefore the psychological effect of these works on the player or players, rather than on the audience as in the case of symphonies and concertos. So one must ask why Beethoven makes a pianist go through the ordeal of the ‘Hammerklavier’ finale, without even the reward of having his virtuosity appreciated.

I can only say that there is a positive value to be found in this kind of musical exhaustion. When the connoisseur—Beethoven had in mind his devoted patron, the Archduke Rudolph—plays the ‘Hammerklavier’ right through and reaches the slow D major episode in the fugue, he has an experience unattainable through simpler means. The gentle phrases are heard in a quasi-weightless condition, and they really do seem to be the conversation of angels. Likewise in the Grosse Fuge, after ears and fiddles have been battered almost beyond endurance, the tranquil Andante (3) is heard in an altered state of consciousness. Beethoven’s device reminds me of certain spiritual exercises in which physical exhaustion is used to open the mind to other states. Beethoven based his last piano sonata, Opus 111, entirely on this contrast. Here, as also in the E major sonata, Opus 109, he took the bold step of ending the work in a mood of profound reverence. (The English publisher of Opus 111 asked him if he had forgotten to send the finale.) But why did he not use this kind of ending in any of his last quartets? I think the reason is that they hold yet another lesson for us.

With the exception of the opening fugue of the C-sharp minor quartet, the most profound slow movements of these works (Opus 127, II; Opus’ 130, V; Opus 131, IV; Opus 132, III; Opus 135,111) are all followed by something wry, clumsy, or bizarre. If we consider this in the light of the previous observation, it seems that these quirky movements may take on quite a different meaning when prepared for by prayerful contemplation.

In the B-flat quartet, the very religious Cavatina gives way either to the most chirrupy and inconsequential of all the late finales, if one takes the alternative ending, or else, if one plays the Grosse Fuge, to the most titanic one. In the latter case, the four players are put through an intensified version of the ‘Hammerklavier’ experience. Let us hear what it feels like to them, as described by Eric Lewis, first violinist of the Manhattan Quartet, who has been playing the work for nearly twenty years.

When I am inside the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, it is a journey through a Black Hole. That piece is beyond all analogy in art, and so I reach for this image—a cosmic storm where the laws of the universe are transmuted in gravitational tides so strong they destroy the known laws of harmony. The G-flat section is a reprise between the two event horizons where time is non-existent. Paradoxical states of consciousness are made understandable and prepare one for the final journey through the A-flat fugue to a vision of a parallel universe in another dimension. I am sure Beethoven took that journey and left his impressions of that universe in Opus 131.

Perhaps the most paradoxical thing of all is the glimpse, in between the two titanic fugues, of the scherzo (4) that knows nothing either of cosmic storms or of timeless contemplation. Now, in that ‘parallel universe’, each of the three moods, the titanic, the reverent and the playful, comes to its own fruition. In the A-flat fugue (5) the struggle intensifies as the Titans heave Pelion on Ossa—and the music certainly makes us fear that the structure may collapse at any moment. The G-flat Andante, formerly cold and lunar, now blazes in solar glory (6). The scherzo, on the other hand, comes back exactly as it was (7), and goes on being a scherzo, like a child who will never grow up. The question now is, which mood will have the last word? It seems for a moment, in the grand unison statement that refers back to the Overtura (8), that the final note will be one of triumph. But anyone who knew the other late quartets would be sceptical of such a gesture. They will not be surprised when Beethoven chooses to give his most titanic work an explicitly untitanic ending. He does not end it with a Bacchic rout, like the Ninth Symphony, nor by sinking into samadhi, like Opus 111. He ends the Grosse Fuge as he ends every one of the late quartets: with a sublime whimsy, an elusive mercurial joy, which I am not the first to identify with the transfiguring ‘gaiety’ of the Taoist sages on Yeats’ lapis lazuli mountain.

The quintessence of this mood is invariably found in a quiet passage very near the end of the work. Here are those moments as they occur in each of the late quartets:

Opus 127

Opus 130 (Grosse Fuge)

Opus 131

Opus 132

Opus 135


These magical passages seem to me to reveal one secret, at least, of the Grosse Fuge, coming as it does at the end of the most whimsical and elusive of all these works. Per ardua ad astra: yes, of course it carries that message; but in the end the cosmic voyager returns quietly home, transfigured by an inextinguishable inner joy. How far Beethoven has come from the triumphalist myth that dominated his middle period! The substitute finale that Beethoven provided for Opus 130, which was the last movement completed before his death, obviously belongs to this same childlike state. People have raised their eyebrows at its simplicity, just as at the little scherzo and the German dance earlier in the quartet. Most of us, unlike Beethoven, are not able to hear these pieces in a state of grace. Until we can do so, our best approach to that condition is to let Beethoven lead us by the hand, through the Black Hole and back to earth again.


This essay is based on a lecture-recital given with the Manhattan Siting Quartet at Colgate University in February, 1988. I am grateful to Eric Lewis, first violinist of this quartet, for permission to quote from his unpublished essay, ‘Night on Music Mountain’.



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