Beethoven Grosse Fuge

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, is one of the great artistic testaments to the human capacity for meaning in the face of the threat of chaos. Abiding faith in the relevance of visionary struggle in our lives powerfully informs the structure and character of the music; this is surely one of the composer’s most inspiring achievements.

The Great Fugue was originally conceived as the final movement of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. In that work it followed directly the Cavatina, one of the most intimate embodiments of the frailty and vulnerability of love ever made audible to human ears (a movement we had the honor of playing at Carl Sagan’s memorial service, as he included it among the works sent into space on Voyager, representing some of the greatest achievements of humanity). This juxtaposition with the most touching lyricism makes the opening of the fugue shocking, as Beethoven takes the final G of that movement and explodes it into a stark octave passage for the whole quartet. The writing is jagged and austere, then, following the Overtura which opens the movement, there is a brief evocation of the wispy, halting breaths of the Cavatina in eerie double notes for the first violin alone. The fugue proper then defiantly announces itself with disjunct, painful and completely unvocal leaps, all elbows and knees. Shouting, on the brink of whirling into chaos, the argument of the fugue is actually tightly ordered; of the dual description Beethoven gives for the movement — partly free, partly studied — this is the studied side. It will be the task of the Grosse Fuge to make sense of this everpresent possibility of complete collapse, to bring resolve and purpose to the human condition in the midst of uncertainty.

During the private premiere of the original version of Op. 130, given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, Beethoven absented himself, choosing to drink in a local pub instead. It fell to the second violinist of that group, Holz, to go to the pub to report to the composer. He declared the occasion a big success, and recounted how those present asked to have two of the inner movements repeated. Beethoven immediately asked about the fugue, and when he was told that there was no request for a repeat of that he remarked that the audience had been made up of “cattle and asses”. The audience as well as the players had in fact had great difficulties with the movement, finding it nearly incomprehensible. It was suggested to the composer that he replace the last movement of the quartet with one which would be more accessible. Certainly Beethoven himself never doubted that the fugue was a masterpiece of great potency. One of the great mysteries of musical history is what could have convinced Beethoven, a quintessentially headstrong man, to agree to remove the fugue from Op. 130 and publish it separately (as Op. 133), writing an alternate finale for the quartet. Today quartets often play Op. 130 in its original incarnation, ending with the Grosse Fuge. We have played that piece in both versions, finding the original version the more satisfying of the two, monumental in its scope.

As confrontational and even brutal as the Grosse Fuge seems to us today, it is hard to imagine the effect it must have had at that time. Stravinsky was fond of saying of this piece that it will forever be contemporary. This is perhaps only partly true. The unforgiving, jagged texture of much of the piece certainly brings it close to sounds not heard again for a century hence, and the piece has a raw energy which will never be blunted. Its surface texture in parts could easily be taken out of context as representative of music of our own time. Still, we live now in the age of quantum mechanics, which takes the physical world out of the realm of the completely measurable, and of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which tells us that no logical system will ever be powerful enough to prove all statements we know to be true. Our faith in the invincibility of human reason and perception for explaining our world has been severely shaken. Much of the art of our era has been devoted to feelings of pessimism and despair. This is not Beethoven’s world. He shares our recognition of the vulnerable fragility of man, the inadequacy of the mind to fully ponder all the enigmas of our world. And yet, his view is one which encompasses hope, and the possibility of triumph, a victorious human spirit. The turn to clarity and optimism happens late in the piece, and quickly, but it is unmistakable, regretless, and moving beyond words.

Early in our quartet’s relationship with this piece I happened to be reading Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire and came across a paragraph which I thought captured something of the essential nature of the Grosse Fuge. I would like to share that passage with you:

Far back in the impulse to find a story is a storyteller’s belief that at times life takes on the shape of art and that the remembered remnants of these moments are largely what we come to mean by life. The short semi-humorous comedies we live, our long certain tragedies, and our springtime lyrics and limericks make up most of what we are. They become almost all of what we remember of ourselves. Although it would be too fancy to take these moments of our lives that seemingly have shape and design as proof we are inhabited by an impulse to art, yet deep within us is a counterimpulse to the id or whatever name is presently attached to the disorderly, the violent, the catastrophic both in and outside us. As a feeling, this counterimpulse to the id is a kind of craving for sanity, for things belonging to each other, and results in a comfortable feeling when the universe is seen to take a garment from the rack that seems to fit. Of course, both impulses need to be present to explain our lives and our art, and probably go a long way to explain why tragedy, inflamed with the disorderly, is generally regarded as the most composed art form.

— Mark Steinberg