There is no shortage of Beethoven works that many (including myself) consider to be pivotal in the history of Western music. The Eroica Symphony broke through the symphonic barrier that Haydn and Mozart had erected in the 18th century only to construct a much more massive barricade that would overshadow symphonic composers for the next two hundred years. Remember that Beethoven embarked on his Third shortly after returning from his introspective sojourn at Heiligenstadt where he resolved to live on despite the agony of his demons because he still had things to say with his art. In many ways, his Third represents a similar turning point for the symphony – it would no longer be the charming, graceful instrumental genre that Haydn and Mozart articulated. The symphony now had something meaningful to say. Beethoven didn’t make things easier on symphonic composers with his fifth, seventh, and, of course, his ninth symphonies either. And his single-handed advancement of sonata form guaranteed the form’s enduring presence in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is quite possible that Beethoven’s most significant contribution to the Western musical tradition is through his string quartets, which continue to challenge the wits of todays performers and theorists alike. One in particular, his op. 133 Grosse Fuge, is in many ways confounding. Have listen if this one isn’t familiar to you: http://youtu.be/6s0Mp7LFI-k On first listen, so many things sound out of place here. Yes there are hints of melody, but where is that beautiful fugue subject we remember from Bach. Beethoven is known to have loved Bach’s masterful fugue study The Well-tempered Clavier as a young student in Bonn, but there are other influences at play here that don’t yield to the passive listening experience that Bach allows. After the 30-or-so measure overture that schizophrenically states the themes that follow (in reverse order), we arrive at a double fugue exposition that seems determine to wear out the listener before we’ve ever reached the first episode. In fact, the entire 16-minute work is an endurance test for any listener (not to mention performers). Almost constant dissonance, angular lines, violent dynamic shifts, repressive syncopation, all occurring at the extremes of register place this work as far as possible from Bach’s comparatively naive fugal studies. So where does Beethoven get this stuff? Music scholar Warren Kirkendale in his article The “Great Fugue” Op. 133: Beethoven’s “Art of Fugue” makes a particularly excellent case that Beethoven was channeling his composition teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger in this work. Albrechtsberger was a fine contrapuntist in his own right and schooled the young(ish) Beethoven in the Fuxian art of species counterpoint. Beethoven kept close at hand nearly all of the counterpoint examples Albrechtberger had provided him but was particularly fascinated by a statement his teacher made with regard to contrapuntal devices:
Augmentation, diminution, abbreviation, syncopation, and stretto of the fugue subjects are the main characters and art in a fugue. But one seldom uses them all within a single fugue.
Alberchtsberger was likely stating a simple fact about counterpoint procedures. But Beethoven took this as more of a challenge, and in his op. 133, he boldly includes each one of the “main characters” side by side. This explains why the slower of the two opening fugue subjects occurs off the beat, that is, syncopated. Fux suggested that this technique be used at the end of fugues in order to build tension. Beethoven saw it as a point of departure and syncopated the rhythm even more later in the work. It should also be noted that in addition to Beethoven’s clever use of contrapuntal devices, he also worked strictly within each species of counterpoint at various points in this piece. In other words, each note of the fugue subject is set against one, two, three, four, and six notes, as well as extended sections using suspensions. So in some ways, this work really is a study in contrapuntal writing and would serve as an excellent model for the counterpoint classroom. It puts on a showy display of all the kinds of things one can do in a fugue, even if it has the tendency to beat the listener over the head with them. However, Beethoven knew the limits of this kind of etude – the kind Bach had explored a little more than 100 years earlier. Beethoven said this:
To make a fugue is not art, which [is something] I have made dozens of times in my study. But the imagination will assert its rights and must come today, in light of the old traditional form, to another truly poetic element.
I think what Beethoven is saying here is that fugal writing is nothing more than following a set of strict rules that any student can master. No fugue will ever be great if one considers only the merits of its “proper” execution. Instead, the imagination has to take those rules and create a work that blends the traditional with the new. Real art should be assessed on its use of imagination, not application of rules. As one of the concluding works in Beethoven’s oeuvre, The Great Fugue represents a final apotheosis, the last of many great turning points in Western musical culture that the composer would catalyze. Just as Beethoven had heroically elevated the symphony, the sonata, and the string quartet to peaks not often seen by mere mortal composers such as myself, so too did his Grosse Fuge explode the possibilites of fugal writing and present composers with yet another insurmountable challenge.