Musical Direction and the Wedge in Beethoven's High Comedy, Grosse Fuge Op.133

By Husarik, Stephen | Musical Times, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview
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Musical Direction and the Wedge in Beethoven's High Comedy, Grosse Fuge Op.133

Husarik, Stephen, Musical Times

Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est

(Applaud, gentlemen, the comedy is finished)


IT IS WELL KNOWN that Ludwig van Beethoven's Grosse Fuge baffled listeners who heard it premiered by Schuppanzigh's string quartet in the rooms of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde on 21 March 1826, and that a critic of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung later went so far as to assess the work as 'incomprehensible, like Chinese'.1 Sitting in a nearby restaurant, Beethoven's reaction was to call the first listeners 'cattle' and 'asses',2 suggesting that he thought they were incapable of ever gaining sufficient musical education to understand it. He must have known that a work such as this would require a special audience because he had already remarked that the op. 5 9 quartets 'are not for you, but a later age ',3 and when his friend Breuning also reported to him that this portion of op. 130 did not please, he said, 'It will please them someday'.4

Beethoven was correct in his assessment. While early listeners and critics had trouble understanding the Grosse Fuge, later musicians such as Igor Stravinsky said it 'will be contemporary forever'.5 Glenn Gould thought that it was 'just about the most astonishing work',6 and modern string players consider Grosse Fuge the non plus ultra of their art. Nevertheless, it has taken almost two centuries and more than 60 analyses to unscramble certain musical aspects of this 'Chinese' puzzle. To date, no critical analysis of Grosse Fuge has satisfactorily explained its compelling directionality, thus leaving even modern listeners unfulfilled.

Previous analyses have identified Grosse Fuge as a series of successive sections; this was the approach taken by d'Indy, Misch, Grew and others.7 Warren Kirkendale and Joseph Kerman went one step further in identifying the work as a cantus firmus fugue - which helped explain its sense of unity but not necessarily its overall sense of direction and closure.8 Kerman (along with Phillip Radcliffe) added more to the conversation in terms of thematic transformation: 'more impressively than any other fugue [...] this one exploits a "device" which Bach barely knew about but which Beethoven knew very well: the projection of the subject into the form'.9

Kirkendale brilliantly identified the origin of the peculiar rhythm of the opening B\> Fuga in a skill book by Beethoven's teacher, Theodor Albrechtsberger, a discovery that remains a landmark in the history of musical criticism.10 Nevertheless, Kirkendale 's work left something to be desired in terms of how Grosse Fuge achieved a sense of forward progress. He asserted that Beethoven wanted this work to represent a compendium of techniques - his 'Art of the fugue'; he cited a remark by Beethoven 'to include all of them [fugai techniques] at once ' to help justify this conclusion.11 Little more than a third of the entire Grosse Fuge is purely fugai, however, and what remains is couched in homophony, or the galant style. If this work demonstrated Beethoven's desire to show off all possible fugai techniques in a single composition, then those techniques are compressed into a minority of the work; even Kirkendale acknowledged that many of the sections are hardly fugai at all. Thus, it appears that the distribution and arrangement of the fugue and fugato sections within Grosse Fuge offer the possibility for new criticism of this work.

'In my student days I made dozens of [fugues ...] but [imagination] also wishes to exert its privileges [...] and a new and really poetic element must be introduced into the traditional form'.12 Beethoven's often quoted remark suggests that he sought something beyond traditional fugue writing in Grosse Fuge. While it is possible that he was referring to formal 'poetics' - and those parallel traits are present in this work - his reference to a 'really poetic element' suggests something more ambitious than an anthology of fugai techniques, or one based upon Classical speech.

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Musical Direction and the Wedge in Beethoven's High Comedy, Grosse Fuge Op.133


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