Magazine article Musical Times

A Fugal Sonata without a Fugue: Beethoven's Op. 102 No. 1

Magazine article Musical Times

A Fugal Sonata without a Fugue: Beethoven's Op. 102 No. 1

Article excerpt

FUGUE: A composition, or a compositional technique, in which imitative counterpoint involving one main theme is the most important or the most characteristic device of formal extension.

(The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians (London, 1980))

THIS STUDY is by no manner of means an analysis, something which would have challenged even the genius of Edmund Rubbra, he who apart from being a major composer could happily devote an hourlong Oxford lecture to the vicissitudes undergone by the subject and its constituent intervals in the course of a single Bach fugue. Unlike most academic analysts, he could at the same time delight and enlighten. Mine is rather an attempt to rationalise my grounds for a long-standing conviction that Beethoven's Cello Sonata in C op.102 no.i, which, unlike its companion and four out of the final six for piano, lacks a fugue, is nonetheless 'fugal'.

Fugue was brought to a high point of perfection in JS Bach's Das wohltemperierte Klavier and Die Kunst der Fuge, but Beethoven's everincreasing interest in the form likewise took him to new peaks of achievement. A climax was reached in twin masterpieces composed some five years apart - the finale of the 'Hammerklavier' Piano Sonata in Bl? op.106 (1818) and the Grosse Fuge op.133, original finale of the String Quartet in the same key, op.130 (1825-26). The next quartet (Cjj minor, op.131) opened with one of his profoundest and most thoughtful fugues, while the 'Et vitam venturi saeculi' of the Missa solemnis in D op.121 (1822-23) similarly explored the heights and depths of fugue.

Counterpoint was for centuries a nature reserve attracting the finest scholarly minds. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux drew up a first definitive guide to its practices in his 1725 classic Gradus adParnassum, in the belief that he was codifying counterpoint as practised by its greatest master, Palestrina (1525/26-1594). In fact his thinking was already conditioned by the onset of the age of harmony. JS Bach carried that harmony-counterpoint synthesis to its greatest height, and Beethoven studied the '48' closely while a pupil of Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98) in his native Bonn. At the end of 1792 he became all too briefly Haydn's pupil in Vienna; the ageing master soon lost interest, but counterpoint studies continued in the same city (which Beethoven would never leave) with the far more conscientious JG Albrechtsberger (1736-1809).

Under way to his twin fugal peaks, Beethoven was not short of practice. The Piano Sonata in A major op.ioi sported a fugue as its finale, so too did the D major second of the two cello sonatas that make up his immediately succeeding opus number (being in a less popular form, they appeared in print later though written earlier), and as would his penultimate Piano Sonata in Ab major (1821-22).

The 1959 book Fugue in Beethovens piano music by the Oxford scholar John Cockshoot traced the manifold incorporation of fugue into the greatest of all collections of music for the instrument, his choice of subject affording him an overview of Beethoven from the fugue that ended the 'Eroica' Variations in 1802 to the fugal section in the opening movement of his very last piano sonata (C minor,, 1821-22) and the penultimate 'Diabelli' Variations from a year later still. Cockshoot's analyses were very thorough and his knowledge of fugue's technicalities impressive, though his doctoral brief precluded any deep consideration of the place of counterpoint and fugue in a composer's personality - something which in that day and age could have led him dangerously close to the forbidden fruit, hermeneutics.

For Albrechtsberger Beethoven worked 24 exercises in double counterpoint at the tenth. As Cockshoot put it, 'Sometimes three- and four-part texture is achieved by the addition of one or two parts which are either free or run in parallel tenths with the original voices', and that indeed happens at quite an early stage of op. …

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