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

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)

Augustus

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.