string quartet

Overtura (Allegro); Fuga (Allegro); Meno mosso e moderato; Allegro molto e con brio

This immense fugue was originally written as the finale of Beethoven’s quartet in B flat, op. 130, but Beethoven’s publisher argued that it was too long and too demanding — for both listeners and performers — to come at the end of an already long and complex work. After the first performance, Beethoven reluctantly consented to the separate publication of the fugue and the substitution of a more traditional finale. That new finale for the Op. 130 was the last music he completed before his death.

The movement that has since become known as the “Grosse Fuge, op. 133” was unlike any finale composed up until that time. Monumental and dissonant, the fugue was as difficult for its earliest performers to play as it was for its earliest listeners to comprehend. In the part, Beethoven marked it “partly free, partly studied”. The main fugal subject is announced at the opening and becomes the subject of a long and forceful double fugue. Then comes a key change and a second fugue based on the subsidiary theme of the first fugue. The mood is soft and lyrical, by contrast with the opening. This is followed by a sort of scherzo interlude and a coda based on the angular intervals of the opening theme.

Igor Stravinsky perhaps summed up this extraordinary piece best when he called it “contemporary music that will be contemporary forever.”

Performance

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