Große Fuge

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The Große Fuge (or Grosse Fuge, also known in English as Great Fugue or Grand Fugue), Op. 133, is a single-movement composition for string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven. A massive double fugue, it originally served as the final movement of his Quartet No. 13 in B major (Op. 130) but Beethoven replaced the fugue with a new finale and published the Grosse Fuge separately in 1827 as Op. 133. It was composed in 1825, when Beethoven was almost completely deaf, and is considered to be part of his set of late quartets. It was first performed in 1826, as the finale of the B quartet, by the Schuppanzigh Quartet.

The Große Fuge is famous for its extreme technical demands and its unrelentingly introspective nature,[1] even by the standards of his late period. It is the largest and most difficult of all of Beethoven's string quartet movements.[2]

Most 19th-century critics dismissed the work. Daniel Gregory Mason called it "repellent",[3] a reviewer writing for Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1826 described the fugue as "incomprehensible, like Chinese" and "a confusion of Babel".[4] However critical opinion of the work has risen steadily since the beginning of the 20th century. The work is now considered among Beethoven's greatest achievements. Igor Stravinsky said of it, "[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."[5]

History of composition[edit]

Beethoven originally composed the Große Fuge as the final movement of his String Quartet No. 13 (Op. 130). When the work was first performed, the audience demanded encores of only two of the middle movements of the quartet. Beethoven, enraged, was reported to have growled, "And why didn't they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!"[6]

However, the fugue was so demanding of contemporary performers and unpopular with audiences that Beethoven's publisher, Matthias Artaria, decided to publish it separately[7] and urged him to write a new finale for the string quartet. Beethoven, although notorious for his stubborn personality and indifference to public opinion or taste, acquiesced to his publisher's request on this occasion. He composed a replacement finale in late 1826. In May 1827, about two months after Beethoven's death, Artaria published the first edition of Op. 130 with the new finale, and the Große Fuge as Op. 133, as well as a four-hand piano arrangement, Op. 134.[8]


Stephen Husarik suggests the Große Fuge is a hybrid work gradually shifting from fugue to homophonic writing—with the ultimate aim of introducing what Beethoven called his "new poetic element" (i.e., thematic transformation). Husarik asserts that its form derives from its cantus firmus. Philip Radcliffe suggests the Große Fuge is "not... a highly eccentric fugue, but.. a kind of symphonic poem". Some parts are strictly fugal while other parts are not fugal at all. Radcliffe points out that by Beethoven's time fugal music could easily degenerate into a "fluent but dull imitation of an earlier idiom", and that Beethoven was not interested in writing conventional fugues. In his largest late works, such as the Diabelli Variations and the Große Fuge, Beethoven seems to make a deliberate contrast between fugal and non-fugal music.[9]

The Große Fuge opens with a 24-bar Overtura that veers around the circle of fifths and introduces the main subjects of the work. The opening measures contain a cantus firmus that is identical to notes found in measures 14-16 of Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirts," from Orfeo ed Euridice. The cantus firmus may be divided into two parts, a Gluck-like segment and a two-note comic tag consisting of a penultimate note and trill. Beethoven exploits the comic tag later in Große Fuge as a means to create humorous musical effects. Fragments of the Overtura anticipate the main sections of the fugue, but in reverse order.[2]

Beethoven then plunges into a violent and dissonant double fugue in B, pitting awkward leaps of the second subject in iambic pentameter against a syncopated cantus firmus. The resulting jocular rhythmic confusion and displaced dissonances last almost five minutes.

After the first section the music shifts from B to G and a quieter, more tentative, sometimes ethereal mood. This second section is mostly a sustained pianissimo, in sharp contrast with the relentless fortissimo of the first section. As Joseph Kerman puts it, "after the strenuousness of the B Fugue [first section], the effect is of an almost blinding innocence."[10] A third section is marked by a return to B and a faster tempo. The meter changes to 6/8. The section is essentially a scherzo featuring a lively dance rhythm but no fugal writing. Complications soon arise as the first fugue subject returns with fragments of its counter-subjects. The trill on the last note of the first subject becomes increasingly prominent, lengthened, and aggressive—especially in the A flat fugue where it is presented mercilessly in stretto, followed by a gargantuan enlargement of the cantus firmus (bass is rising in thirds and frenzied trills descend a scale). An abrupt modulation brings a complete change of mood. At this point the second fugue subject reappears for the first time since the first section in B. It is accompanied by the fugue's cantus firmus, but highly transformed in E. Earlier sections begin to reappear, including the "scherzo" and an extended ethereal section. Finally, the music pauses. The angular second fugal subject begins fortissimo, but quickly breaks off as if it was a mistake (abruptio). After another pause the quiet and tentative theme from the earlier G section starts up, but it too breaks in mid-statement (abruptio). The work's final section follows, marked by a statement of the first fugue subject, played in unison octaves, fortissimo and all three subjects come together into a pleasant comedic union. Finally, as Philip Radcliffe puts it, "having so perfectly rounded off his enormous design, Beethoven ends with a few bars of matter-of-fact tonic and dominant"[9]—which is actually a comic reference to the iambic pentameter of the opening Fuga.

Like some of Beethoven's other late finales, such as the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony, the Fugue can be seen as a multi-movement form contained within a single large movement. Each of the smaller sections is built on a transformation of the original theme. Uniquely, the form of this work follows the overall shape of its cantus firmus. Husarik has shown that its internal techniques are intended to spoof the contrapuntal style of Beethoven's contemporaries. After things settle down, the B flat fuge and lyrical G flat fugato themes return in "abruptio"—a rhetorical technique where thematic material is re-stated before completing an argument. The fugue comes to a homophonic close with all three subjects arranged in their most harmonically and rhythmically pleasing relationships.

During the 20th century, quartets came to play Op. 130 with the original Große Fuge finale. Opinion today is decisively in favor of using the fugue; most musicians would agree that the quartet is stronger in its original form.[11]

The finale that replaced the Große Fuge in Op. 130 is a rondo that is considerably shorter and lighter in character than the fugue. The change radically alters the nature of the B quartet, causing the preceding Cavatina movement to become the dramatic focus. In contrast, in the quartet with the Große Fuge finale, known as the Galitzin version, the heartful and lyrical Cavatina, of which Beethoven said the mere thought brought him to tears, is suddenly and vehemently rejected by the harsh opening of the Große Fuge. The fugue then proceeds, at great length, to establish a radically new vision, overwhelming the rest of the quartet. As the finale of the B quartet, the Große Fuge resembles the choral finale (the Ode to Joy) of the 9th Symphony. Both are among Beethoven's most radical works. Both the Große Fuge and the Ode to Joy seem to reject their preceding movements while transforming and transcending them, both are constructed of smaller movements combined using variations into a composite form, and both make use of sophisticated musical symbolism to evoke premonition and reminiscence.[2]

Reception and musical influence[edit]

The Große Fuge was and remains widely considered one of the less immediately accessible of Beethoven's compositions (if not the most inaccessible), because of its combination of dissonance and contrapuntal complexity. It is "as incomprehensible as Chinese," wrote a critic of the first performance of the work.[12] "The attitude of mind in which most people listen to chamber music must undergo a radical change" in order to understand this piece, wrote Joseph de Marliave almost a century later.[13] Joseph de Marliave also wrote of it, "this fugue is one of the two works by Beethoven—the other being the fugue from the piano sonata, Op. 106—which should be excluded from performance." Marliave admits the fugue is "one of the greatest works of genius in existence", but that reading and studying the score "gives more pleasure than hearing". He further writes, "abandoning himself with an almost demoniacal pleasure to his mighty genius, Beethoven heaps one discordant effect upon another, and the general impression of tiresome waste cannot be dispelled by the marvel of its technical construction, nor by the perfection of detail".[14]

Despite the difficulty many people felt, the work epitomizes the profound, complex character of Beethoven's later works. It is quoted in Alfred Schnittke's third string quartet, as well as in other contemporary compositions. There have been numerous orchestral arrangements of the fugue, including by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and by Felix Weingartner.

Arrangement for piano four-hands[edit]

In early 1826, the publisher of the Op. 130 String Quartet, Mathias Artaria, reported "many requests" for a piano four-hand arrangement of the Große Fuge, evidently for study and home performance. This was well before any discussion of separating the fugue from the main body of the quartet. Artaria asked Beethoven to prepare the arrangement, but Beethoven wasn't interested, so Artaria instead asked Anton Halm to prepare it. Beethoven was not satisfied with Halm's work and subsequently made his own note-for-note arrangement of the quartet. Beethoven's arrangement was completed subsequent to the C minor String Quartet, Op. 131 and was published by Artaria as Op. 134.[15]

Rediscovery of manuscript[edit]

Manuscript of the Große Fuge arranged by Beethoven for piano four hands.

In July 2005 an authentic 1826 Beethoven manuscript titled "Große Fuge" was found[16][17] by a Pennsylvania librarian at the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. The manuscript was authenticated by Dr. Jeffrey Kallberg at the University of Pennsylvania and by Dr. Stephen Roe, head of Sotheby's Manuscript Department. This was the four-hand piano arrangement of the Große Fuge, Op. 134. The manuscript had been missing for 115 years. It was auctioned by Sotheby's Auction House on 1 December 2005; it was bought for GBP 1.12 million (USD 1.95 million) by a then-unknown purchaser, who has since revealed himself to be Bruce Kovner, a publicity-shy multi-billionaire who donated the manuscript—along with 139 other original and rare pieces of music—to the Juilliard School of Music in February 2006. It has since become available in their online manuscript collection.[18] The manuscript's known provenance is that it was listed in an 1890 catalogue and sold at an auction in Berlin to a Cincinnati, Ohio industrialist, whose daughter gave it and other manuscripts including a Mozart Fantasia to a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1952. It is not known how the Beethoven manuscript came to be in the possession of the library.

Literary influence[edit]

The poet Mark Doty wrote of the feelings engendered by the Große Fuge:[19]

What does it mean, chaos
gathered into a sudden bronze sweetness,
an October flourish, and then that moment
denied, turned acid, disassembling,
questioned, rephrased?

Mark Doty, Grosse Fuge (1995)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kerman, in Winters and Martin (1994), p. 27.
  2. ^ a b c Kinderman, William (1995). Beethoven. University of California Press. pp. 301–307. ISBN 978-0-520-08796-5. Retrieved 25 December 2010. 
  3. ^ Kerman, Joseph (1979). The Beethoven Quartets. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 294. ISBN 0-393-00909-2. Retrieved 30 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Solomon, Maynard (2003). Late Beethoven: music, thought, imagination. University of California Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-520-23746-9. Retrieved 25 December 2010. 
  5. ^ Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 24.
  6. ^ Solomon (1977) p. 447
  7. ^ For a full account of Beethoven's decision to publish the fugue separately, see Solomon (1977), pp. 448–449
  8. ^ Lockwood, Lewis (2005). Beethoven: the music and the life. W. W. Norton. pp. 459–461. ISBN 978-0-393-32638-3. Retrieved 25 December 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Radcliffe, Philip (1978). Beethoven's string quartets. CUP Archive. pp. 138–147. ISBN 978-0-521-29326-6. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  10. ^ Kerman, Joseph (1979). The Beethoven quartets. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 287. ISBN 978-0-393-00909-5. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  11. ^ Winter, Robert (1994). The Beethoven Quartet Companion. University of California Press. pp. 151, 239. ISBN 978-0-520-20420-1. Retrieved 25 December 2010. 
  12. ^ Miller (2006), p. 44.
  13. ^ de Marliave (1928), p. 220
  14. ^ Joseph de Marliave (2004) [1925 (French), 1928 (English)]. Beethoven's Quartets. Trans. Hilda Andrews. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 221–222. ISBN 978-0-486-43965-5. OCLC 56214611. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  15. ^ Cooper, Barry (2008). Beethoven. Oxford University Press. p. 364. ISBN 978-0195313314. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  16. ^ Daniel J. Wakin (2005-10-13). "A Historic Discovery, in Beethoven's Own Hand". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  17. ^ "Handwritten Beethoven score resurfaces". Canada: CBC. 2005-10-13. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ Mark Doty, "Grosse Fuge" in Atlantis (1995) Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-095106-0


  • First published edition of the fugue was by Matthias Artaria, 1825. The fugue was republished by Breitkopf and Hartel in 1866 in Ludwig van Beethoven's Werke Series 6. An Urtext edition is also published by Henle.
  • de Marliave, Joseph, Beethoven's Quartets (1928), reprinted 1961 by Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-20694-7
  • Kerman, Joseph, The Beethoven Quartets. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1966. ISBN 0-393-00909-2
  • Miller, Lucy, Adams to Zemlinsky (2006) Concert Artists Guild, ISBN 1-892862-09-3
  • Robinson, Kim Stanley, Fifty Degrees Below (2007) Bantam, ISBN 0-553-58581-9
  • Solomon, Maynard, Beethoven (1978) Granada Publishing, ISBN 0-586-05189-9
  • Winter, Robert and Martin, Robert (editors) The Beethoven Quartet Companion (1994) University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-20120-4
  • Stowell, Robert, editor (2003). The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80194-X. 

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