The Complete Beethoven String Quartets - by the Alban Berg Quartet

From the Dizzying Heights of Beethoven’s Genius: Die Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

Like other works from Beethoven’s late period, the Great Fugue contains some of the most searching language in all of music.  Its region, not always sweet to the ears, is one of struggle, of profound introspection.  These are soundings into uncharted depths of the artistic imagination.

I am here reminded of Einstein’s notion that “the imagination is more important than knowledge insofar as it encompasses the world.”  The sense is that we cannot begin to know the world, to know ourselves, without first imagining what is possible.  I suppose it is for this reason that we call them, in music as in science, visionaries: The great composers are able to see farther than most of us can; they allow us a glimpse of what lies beyond the horizon of accepted taste.  That is but one function of the thing we call art. 

Beethoven’s contemporaries certainly didn’t respond positively to the Great Fugue when it was first performed in the year before his death.  A noted critic of the day even called it “ugly,” an “anachronism,” an assault on the then-current principles of so-called “proper” music.  Another suggested that it was as incomprehensible as Chinese.  (It’s safe to assume that the reviewer was not from China!)  So it was that Beethoven, on the advice of his publisher, opted to remove it from the String Quartet for which it was originally conceived (No. 13 in B-Flat major, Op. 130) and to publish it separately as Opus 133.  The vision of the artist did not jive with the taste of his Viennese contemporaries, and the Great Fugue was placed under quarantine. 

Despite such initial, hand-from-the-burner response to the work, the Great Fugue has come to be regarded as a self-contained masterpiece.  Igor Stravinsky went so far as to call it the greatest piece of music ever composed, “a perfect miracle.”  Perhaps what is perfectly miraculous about the Great Fugue is that it still sounds so utterly modern.  Composed in 1825, it doesn’t sound of a time.  Its place is Utopia, which is to say no place at all.

And so the Great Fugue continues to challenge our sensibilities, to call us to refashion our accepted ideas of what can be called beautiful.  The small miracle is this: a music that is timeless precisely because it is always timely.  And while I don’t think it would be wise for the marketing team at Hallmark to include the fugue in its series of musical greeting cards, I do wish that more people could have the chance to hear it. 

Granted, it is a difficult work to enjoy on first listen.  Perhaps it is that a work of art must first hit us over the head if its beauty is to strike us.

Roll over Chad Kroeger.

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