Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Grosse Fuge: Unequally Yoked

It's fashionable these days to perform Beethoven's Op. 130 quartet with its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. Behind these performances is the belief that following the composer's initial intent is somehow more authentic or correct. Although it's interesting from a historical perspective to experience the quartet as it was first envisioned, this type of performance should be much less frequent.

At the quartet's premier, two other movements were encored at the audience's behest, but the fugue left them quite bewildered. Beethoven was upset, and supposedly responded, "Why not the fugue? Cattle! Asses!" This is an understandable reaction, since the fugue represents an almost superhuman culmination of his artistic and technical skill -- undoubtedly, he was fiercely proud of it. Later, when the publisher suggested he compose a replacement finale, he agreed, and the quartet was published with the new movement (the fugue was published separately, as Op. 133).

Why, then, do so many modern performances include the fugue instead of the replacement finale? Do performers assume that Beethoven faltered under pressure, yielded to the publisher's demands, and begrudgingly allowed the quartet to be published with the new movement -- Beethoven, who was notorious for his stubborn independence? It's much more likely that Beethoven simply realized, independently of the publisher, that the gigantic fugue was frighteningly out of place. Its forceful character, strange thematic material, relentless counterpoint, and gargantuan proportions are completely foreign to the rest of the quartet. The replacement finale, on the other hand, compliments the previous movements perfectly with its character and size. The Grosse Fuge, given its monolithic nature, doesn't deserve to be trivialized by these previous movements (I'm not questioning their quality -- the cavatina is one of Beethoven's most inspired utterances), and these movements don't deserve to be bogged down or overshadowed by the fugue.

Did Beethoven ever change his mind about any of his other pieces? Did he ever have to struggle to make compositional decisions? The answer to both questions, of course, is yes. For instance, he originally performed the Op. 53 Waldstein Sonata with the Andante Favori (in F major) as its slow movement. After weighing the criticism of a friend, he published the movement separately, and composed the replacement "introduction" to the finale. Another example of this involves the early, discarded sketches of the Ninth Symphony's finale, which he later recycled in his Op. 132 quartet. In fact, all his large compositions undoubtedly involved some major rearrangement or rethinking.

So, while these performances of the quartet and fugue together are indeed interesting curiosities, the idea that they are somehow more "correct" or "authentic" is blasphemous disregard for Beethoven's ultimate (and wise) decision.


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