It’s unusual for a piece composed 195 years ago to still garner reactions like “That last bit was weird” and “I still don’t get it” from a concert audience, but Beethoven’s Große Fuge still baffles the uninitiated–and absolutely delights me. Said Igor Stravinsky–no stranger to music that caused listeners to break into fisticuffs–of the Große Fuge, in 1963, “[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” There is an exceedingly short list of works that I will drop everything to hear a performance of (including Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s fisticuffs-inducing work), and the Große Fuge is on that list, and Sunday afternoon I got to do just that to hear it for the first time performed live by the Pacifica Quartet. Even better, the performance put the Fuge in its rightful place as the finale of the String Quartet #13, op. 130. So what is it about this work that still has listeners scratching their heads?
The confusion was there from the very first performance of the work. Beethoven’s late quartets are rightly famous for how revolutionary and forward-looking they were. And audiences and musicians alike didn’t quite grasp them. Per the Wikipedia entry: ” One musician commented that ‘we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.’ Composer Louis Spohr called them “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Part of this is that they’re fiendishly difficult to play, but also significant is how far Beethoven was pushing the concept of the string quartet beyond its classical conception as perfected by Haydn. The usually-accepted masterpiece of this group is #14 in C# minor op. 131, his final quartet, which has seven movements played without interruption; Beethoven considered it his favourite. The slightly earlier B flat major quartet #13, op. 130, was a work in six movements, with the Große Fuge (originally) being the final movement. But critics loathed it, and Beethoven was persuaded to calve it off as its own piece (op. 133) and to supply a new, much more conventional finale for the quartet. It wasn’t performed in public again after its premiere until 1853, and it was not until well into the 20th century that it began to be performed regularly. Although it’s still performed as a stand-alone piece, it’s also often been restored to its rightful place as the finale of the op. 130 quartet.
So why the fuss?
First, the “Große ” (“Great” in German) is no understatement–the movement takes up over 1/3 of the run time of the quartet, which lasts about 45-50 minutes. That makes the quartet as long as his Eroica symphony, his second longest. There are whole quartets about the length of that one movement. The movement that immediately precedes the Fuge is the Cavatina, a gorgeous, deeply . Mark Steinberg of the Brentano Quartet calls the Cavatina “the desolation of the inexpressible fully revealed.” The climax is an exchange between the first and second violins, where, in Steinberg’s words:
The incongruity of the utterances opens a space for one of the most unsettling passages in all of music, with the first violin left in desperate isolation. Beethoven marks the passage beklemmt: oppressed, anguished, stifled. Along with a viscerally disorienting shift to a distant tonality the lower voices pulsate in a sort of primal vibration. The first violin is somehow overcome, no longer singing, no longer even able to connect one note to another, voiceless yet desperate to give voice.
The Cavatina is rightly famous as the final piece on the gold records that were sent into space as part as the Voyager 1 and 2 probes. It was played at Carl Sagan’s funeral. It’s humanity gazing out into the universe and being so overwhelmed with the immensity of it all that it staggers, overwhelmed, and emits great gaping sobs played by the first violinist.
And then, after that, this….thing. The Große Fuge announces itself brashly, with an overture played in octaves, in harsh contrast to what we’ve just heard. The movement is based around an eight-note, chromatic motif, and it’s that chromaticism that lends it its sense of chaos and dissonance that makes it feel so “modern.” Add to that the leaping, urgent second theme, which jumps around in tenths and twelfths, like someone having an intense panic attack. Trills are used throughout the piece to augment that feeling of nervousness. But contrast these figures–all played fortissimo (sometimes triple fff) with the third motif, a lilting, soft (pianissimo) thing that almost apologizes for itself in the slower middle section.
After the bold “overture” section disintegrates into a trill, and silence, the second theme is stated, and then, quietly, the third. And then the fugues kick off, and we enter that central portion of the maze that is the Große Fuge. And the Große Fuge isn’t just one fugue–it’s two, plus an extra bonus fugato. The first one is a classic Baroque double fugue, following all the rules of counterpoint–but in a violent, jerky, dissonant, and loud manner, pitting the chromatic first theme against the wildly-leaping second theme. And eventually, the whole thing just sort of peters out–loudly– in an exhausted heap. Then the slow section, emphasizing the third theme begins, a pianissimo fugato playing that third theme off against the first chromatic theme. In contrast to the several minutes of fortissimo chaos that the listener has just endured, this hearkens back, in many ways, to the world of the Cavatina. After this section dies down comes another fugue–and this one is made particularly jittery from the way that each of the string players spit out fragments of sound at each other–the rhythm here is hellaciously complex and the timing must be perfect. Beethoven also continues to mess with his main theme–he slows it down, he speeds it up, he plays it backwards. And then there are trills everywhere. The effect given is that the whole section sounds like it is on the verge of exploding apart at any minute. The fugato comes back, except played loudly–and then the whole thing sort of seems to disintegrate into fragments of the various motif, as if the quartet has gotten completely lost in the maze and trying to remember where it is. After a pause, it’s as if they say “let’s try this!” and play the first bars of the first fugue.
Nope, that doesn’t work–let’s try that third theme!
Nope, not that.
Ah, here it is!–the very loud opening chords of the piece. We’ve found our way back the the entrance of the maze, and we can finally find our way out.
This video is one of the best ways I’ve seen to help the listener keep track of what’s happening with each of the four instruments–and you don’t need to read music:
In fact, it’s partially this video’s fault that I fell in love with the work about five years ago. Back in my early high school years, I was babysitting one evening and the family owned a set of the late quartets. I had never heard them before. Quartet music generally left me cold, as compared to symphonies, concertos, and even solo piano works–despite the fact that I’d played in a couple of quartets and trios as part of my violin studies, and liked them as a participant. As a listener, I found them rather cold and academic. After I’d put the baby to bed, I settled down to listen. I wasn’t a convert. And the Große Fuge–well, it was loud and dissonant and just not the Beethoven I adored. It was, in the words I overheard at the concert yesterday, weird. Angular. Not easy to hug. Angry, genuinely angry, as opposed to passionate, or, dramatic, or stormy, which you could apply to the dramatic portions of the Fifth or Ninth symphonies. Exhausting. It would take me nearly thirty-five years to listen to it again, by which time those qualities had become virtues, not vices, and my concepts of what orchestral music could and should do had expanded. The video, which is absolutely mesmerizing, sealed the deal. And it started to open my mind about quartets and what they could be.
The Pacifica Quartet’s performance was part of the Hamilton Chamber Music series. I’d already purchased a ticket to next month’s performance with the New Orford String Quartet, which includes the Shostakovich 8th, but it was, once again, an article in the Hamilton Spectator that alerted me that the performance of the Beethoven op. 130 would include the original finale, the Große Fuge. Having missed the Fuge the last time I knew of a performance (it was a 10 pm concert on a Thursday as part of the Toronto Summer Music series), I wasn’t going to miss this one. The Pacifica, as it turns out, is a return visitor to Hamilton, having played three other Beethoven quartets during their last visit in 2016. They’re also cycle specialists (and I picked up two of their four Shostakovich cycle CDs at intermission) and have won a Grammy, although with a slightly different lineup (first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos have been joined in recent years by second violinist Austin Hartman and violist Mark Holloway). According to their bio, critics have praised their “exuberant” playing style–and it was absolutely that. During the first half performances — Beethoven’s early Quartet #5 (op. 18) and his 11th (op. 95) what struck me was the extraordinary level of communication between all four musicians, through eye contact and facial expressions. First violinist Ganatra, in particular, seemed to engage deeply and personally with the music, and the other three were clearly attuned to her leadership
With the op. 130 quartet, the Pacifica’s approach burst into full flower with the extended palette of emotions, culminating in an extraordinary Cavatina. The aforementioned ‘beklemmt‘ passage as played in the concert was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard in a Beethoven quartet–or ever, really (its only immediate rival might be the fourth movement of the Shostakovich 8th quartet.) After the soft, quiet ending of the Cavatina, the quartet launched immediately and forcefully into the Große Fuge, filling the room with sound without sounding harsh or forced, without sawing too forcefully to create the fortissimos demanded by the score. It was as if the music had suddenly caught fire. I knew immediately that this was the way this work was meant to be heard, that the juxtaposition of the Fuge with the Cavatina and the rest of the work is crucial to its understanding and success. Even as far back as the first movement, I had caught little hints of tonality that pointed to where Beethoven was going with the work. The analogy I mentioned earlier of the work as a maze came to me for the first time as I listened to the performance. It is a work meant to baffle and to challenge ideas of what a string quartet is and can do. It expresses anger and confusion far more than any other of Beethoven’s work, in juxtaposition with both sorrow (in the Cavatina) and a quiet kind of sweetness and resignation (in its own slow section). And the Pacifica were not timid about their exuberance–which is part of the success of this work. Their playing was crisp and flawless, but deeply embued with emotion, particularly in the dynamics and in the contrast between the heaviness of the first fugue and the lightness and quiet of the fugato. It was an astounding performance, rewarded with a standing ovation.
The Große Fuge could almost stand alone as a single-movement quartet (what I just said about it being meant to be played with the rest of the op. 130 notwithstanding), which reminded me suddenly of another quartet that is exactly that — the Shostakovich 13th. Shostakovich knew–and loved–the Fuge, which he enjoyed playing in Beethoven’s piano four hands version. Shostakovich also paid a great deal of attention to numbers–so is it a coincidence that the Fuge is part of Beethoven’s 13th quartet? Maybe. I wonder. The two works are about the same length, and share a bit of a reputation for being baffling or unnerving. Wendy Lesser quotes Fitzwilliam Quartet violist Alan George: “Even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed by it.” It also contains its share of fugal material, although it’s not precisely a fugue or a fugato, both of which Shostakovich could write at an extremely high level.
(In any case, having now listened to the Pacifica perform the first eight Shostakovich quartets on the CDs I purchased yesterday, I’ve ordered the other two CDs, and I am now eager to see what they make of the 13th. )
I should take a moment to mention the extraordinary beauty of the venue, the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Pavillion at the Art Museum of Hamilton–a gorgeous light-filled room with outstanding acoustics that quietly enhanced the clarity of the performance.