Grosse Fuge

Programme note

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Grosse Fuge for strings, Op 133 (1825)

There was a time when Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, like his Missa Solemnis and the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony, was deemed too daunting for human performance. If the worst came to the worst the symphony could end, as sometimes happened in Britain, with its slow movement. To circumvent the problems of the ‘great fugue’, on the other hand, Beethoven supplied his own solution. Persuaded by his publisher that the fugue was too incomprehensible to form the finale of his big B-flat String Quartet, Op 130, he wrote something shorter and wittier instead, allowing the fugue to stand alone as Op 133.

Under its own name it proved no easier to play, but performers gradually accepted the challenge. Though Beethoven himself had declined to attend its original premiere, exclaiming “cattle!” and “asses!” when told that the audience had failed to demand an encore, his willingness to provide a substitute movement suggests that he was aware how formidable the fugue actually was. Yet a sense of strain was, and still is, a vital element of the music. Not even Hans von Bulow’s solution, which was to get a string orchestra to give the music some ballast, could wholly conceal its difficulties.

Today, most performers can take it in their stride, frequently restoring it to its original place as the finale of Op 130, yet its modernity remains startling. Based on a four-note motif with which Beethoven became obsessed while writing his last quartets, it is almost a fifteen-minute quartet, or set of variations, in itself, in which four recognisable movements are packed into one. So there is an ‘Overture’ - really five miniature, disjointed overtures - out of which the fugue springs with a relentlessly violent, jerky counter-subject. The succeeding slow section is more flowing, but nervous energy erupts again in a sort of scherzo where the motif is heard in a context of trills, employed as a source of power rather than decoration. From here the music becomes increasingly fragmented, and quicker in its changes of mood as it moves towards its close.

© Conrad Wilson