Review Summary: Forever Contemporary.
Composer Masterpiece Series. No. 1.
If you are unfamiliar with the Grosse Fugue, let me begin by naming a Beethoven work you surely do know, the Ode to Joy. I reference the Ode to say that the Grosse Fugue equals it in four respects: titanism, retrospective and prospective scope, poetic merit, and intellectualism. It pays dividends to ponder for a few moments just what this means. Through Beethoven’s blend of musical poeticism with the arcane rules of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, the Ode to Joy not only turns our attention towards the heavens but exalts our spirits there in perpetuity. In each of these respects, the Grosse Fugue, in all its sublime horror, mirrors the Ode to Joy.
The similarities between the two pieces begin with their respective contemporary reactions. Of the 9th’s fourth movement, Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven, wrote that it was, “so monstrous and tasteless and so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.” Apparently, the Ode, deeply steeped in contrapuntal and fugal techniques, led Spohr to conclude that Beethoven was, “wanting in aesthetic feeling and in a sense of the beautiful.” As for Op. 133, in a funny twist of fate, for English speakers anyway, the “Grosse” in Grosse Fugue, which translates to “grand” in German, could quite accurately describes the contemporary Viennese reaction. An 1826 reviewer for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the biggest and most important contemporary German language music periodical, famously described Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue as, “incomprehensible, like Chinese”, “a confusion of Babel”, suggesting that Beethoven’s deafness most likely prevented him from understanding its unattractiveness.
By the last years of Beethoven’s life, similar reactions to the perceived byzantium of contrapuntus stretched back nearly a century. In 1737, Johann Adolf Scheibe wrote of Herr Polyphony himself that, “Bach’s [J.S.] excess of art not only takes away from his pieces the beauty of harmony but completely covers the melody throughout, all of the voices must work with each other and be of equal difficulty, and none of them can be recognized as the principal voice.” Ironically, missing the forest for the trees, Scheibe’s criticism quite accurately describes the mechanics of Bach’s wonderful aesthetic.
I specifically referenced the Scheibe quote to give the listener a sense of what to expect with the Grosse Fugue, for you cannot understand the late Beethoven without Bach. If one adjective that comes to mind while pondering the sound of the Grosse Fugue is “cacophony,” the other should be “beauty”. It is true that Scheibe and his ilk misunderstood Bach. Today, however, the fact that we know better should underscore the duality of polyphony. Thus, with hindsight as our ally we can assert that polyphony of the order of Bach and late Beethoven need not be understood as objectionable. However, I think we can also appreciate at least some of the severity of the first impressions of each piece. Listening to the fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is certainly not easy, especially so for those unfamiliar with counterpoint. The genesis of these particular fugues are grounded in rigorous written(!) intellectual and didactic exercises that aim to teach the rules of Baroque counterpoint, but are not designed to produce the kind of “poetic merit” that late 18th century “Galants” and the like so crudely wished to use as a standard for high art.
As pleasing as Bach makes them, to synthesize the profundity of the 48 fugues of Books I and II of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a lifelong process. Beethoven in the Grosse Fugue, on the other hand, combines the austerity of the fugue’s aesthetic with the “poetic merit” of classicism, ultimately rendering the GF more emotional, and to a certain less cerebrally inclined segment of the population, more likable.
The Grosse Fugue is a single movement work composed for sting quartet divided into five broad sections: The “Overtura” which acts a thematic table of contents, the First Fugue, the Second Fugue, the March and Third fugue, and finally the March and coda. To begin, the Overtura is a series of five abrupt musical gestures each similar in intervallic but not harmonic or temporal scope. We begin with a crashing G echoed in octaves of the second violin, viola, and bass. After a pause, the G is sounded again and held for five allegro-paced beats, followed by a G#, a jump of a diminished 7th to an F natural, a minor second descent to an E, and then a minor 6th descent back down to G#, each note respectively held for one measure, followed by a minor second ascent to A, a major 6th ascent to F#, and a final minor second ascent to G natural trilled for effect, each note held for one beat respectively. The contour of this bizarre line is followed by the remaining four gestures, with each repetition varying the original line.
The final gesture, being part of the basis for segment two’s main fugue, is the most eerie sounding motive Beethoven, or perhaps anyone, ever composed. Beethoven features the contour of the original line in Bb sounded in quarter note largo off beats which ends on the dissonant 7th note of the scale, A. Although simple, the sense of existential dread in this line is utterly palpable; and hence the stage is set for the shock that is the Gross Fugue.
After a brief pause, the fugue begins in a two line stretto with the above-mentioned line supporting a crushingly serrated motif that bounces in octaves and chromatics. Beethoven composed the rhythm of these lines so that every 8th note of the measure is sounded, bouncing from one line to the other. Beware, this is only the fugal theme’s first entrance. By the time Beethoven sounds the entrance of each line we have blistering discordance, noise that mimics what it must sound like to go mad. But the process of fugue satisfies our pattern seeking impulses, so with each complete entrance of the theme our spirit smiles and breathes a sigh of relief. Yet, Beethoven does not complete the fugue until he has exhausted all contrapuntal means at his disposal, treating the line forte throughout.
The fugue of the piece’s third section is built off motivic material from the second and third gestures from the Overtura, but sounded in Gb. Beethoven slows the pace and presents the new, smoother, second fugue in a lyrical manner devised to give the listener some respite. In a much softer, almost Mozartean fashion, pianissimo sixteenth notes pulse throughout. The quartet then fuses together in a resounding forte that quietly diminishes back into pianissimo. Even Beethoven knew he could not impose universal harshness.
A sprightly march in 6/8 begins the fourth section. The march, based off the same four-note motif from the Overtura, sounds pleasant enough, but Beethoven winds the theme so airtight the listener is left with mixed messages about how the piece will proceed. Ultimately, Beethoven heads down a dark path with his treatment of the third fugue, a reprise of the uncompromising first fugue with an added trill, the growling sound of which comes to dominate the texture. The violins then introduce slicing eighth notes that breath an even more vigorous energy into the passage. Beethoven then continues to feature the trills in the foreground effectively clenching the texture in its fists. This section is not over, though, as Beethoven continues on by compressing the fugue with the entrance of another fierce fugal countersubject. However, Beethoven uses the rest of this section to treat the themes without dread but beauty. We seem to have emerged from our existential dread.
The fifth and last section begins with a reprise of the 6/8 march which quickly leads into the coda. What was the Overtura becomes a thematic index as Beethoven presents the material of the table of contents in a similar disjointed fashion, but treats the material more fully. The effect of this treatment neatly bookends the piece, and lends the work a quintessential Beethoveninan completeness. And then, just like that, we end on a swift cadence, the piece gone like a whisper.
First time listens of the Grosse Fugue are not for the faint of heart, one must accept its ruggedness and uncomfortable stretches. Ultimately, Beethoven did not mean to delight audiences. He meant to compose a grand essay in a new contrapuntal manner, a manner that simultaneously looks back to generations past and foreshadows generations future. Successful listens of the Grosse Fugue will leave you in awe of its sublime dread, a dread which Beethoven believes can be overcome. But perhaps the most outstanding feature of the Grosse Fugue its ability to speak so convincingly that you feel you are in Beethoven's world. This, I think, is as true now as it was in 1825. In the immortal words of Igor Stravinsky, the Grosse Fugue will remain, “not birth marked by its age, but forever contemporary.”