Ludwig van Beethoven, the great deaf one, is an absolute giant in the history of music. Some label him a Classical composer, including him in the great Viennese school with Haydn and Mozart. Others call him the first great Romantic composer. Many history texts deal with Beethoven in a class by himself, starting with one foot in the Classical era. With the other foot he shatters the conventions of the Classical era, laying the foundation for the next generation of musical Romantics. Whatever chapter you want to include old grumpy Ludwig in, his musical genius is a looming shadow over everyone who has tried to write music since. His string quartets are a foundation of the chamber music repertoire.
Beethoven wrote cycles of piano sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets among many other masterpieces. Piano was his main instrument, and many of his innovations were first worked out in the piano sonatas before other genres. His series of string quartets span all three periods of Beethoven’s compositional career. His early quartets take their cue from Haydn, but still have Ludwig’s personality and fingerprints all over them. (Beethoven “studied” with Haydn for a time, although those lessons were not the most productive sessions in history.) Beethoven’s late string quartets are some of the last works he completed, and are examples of the most moving, intimate, expressive, and intricate works of music ever set to paper.
In Beethoven’s late quartets, the order of publication is not the same order in which they were composed. The sequence of composition is Opus 127, 132, 130 (with the Grosse Fuge op. 133), 131 , and finally Opus 135. I would like to visit the String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 130, composed in 1825, for our listening today. The history of the B flat Major quartet includes a story that happens nowhere else in the biography of Beethoven. Beethoven was a grumpy, disagreeable, ill-tempered, ill-mannered, paranoid man. He took advice from no one, least of all any advice about his music. He used and abused every one of his personal assistants (not one of which was ever paid a penny), and accused everyone he knew of trying to cheat him at some time or another. But somehow, people were able to change Ludwig’s mind about the Opus 130 quartet.
The B flat Major quartet, Opus 130, is a lengthy, emotional work in six movements. Beethoven has expanded on the standard four movement plan (developed in no small part by Haydn) by including two different slow movements, and two different dance-like scherzo movements. One of the most powerful pieces of music anywhere is the fifth movement Cavatina of this quartet. A performance of this Cavatina was included on the Golden Record that was sent into space on both of the Voyager probes in the 1970’s. The original final movement of the work was the massive Grosse Fuge. This “Great Fugue” is the single longest chamber music movement Beethoven ever wrote. It is not a traditional fugue in the strict Bachian sense, but rather an apotheosis of counterpoint that includes four different fugal sections connected with other material.
I absolutely love the Grosse Fuge. If anyone ever wondered what it would be like to crawl inside my head and hear what goes on, I would suggest listening to this piece. (I can be soft and cuddly on the outside, but quite intense in the back of my brain.) Not everyone at the premier of the quartet was as enthusiastic as I am. Some of the players, Beethoven’s colleagues, suggested the Fugue was too much. They urged him to replace it with another finale. Beethoven’s publisher made a similar suggestion, with concerns about the sales of sheet music. Normally, Ludwig would greet such suggestions with instructions to shove them somewhere that would interfere with one’s digestion. But he didn’t do that in this case. The astounding thing that happened, and had never happened before in the history of Beethoven, is that he LISTENED to the suggestion. He separated the Fugue from the rest of the quartet and wrote a new, pleasant rondo-finale in its place. No one would have ever bet money that Ludwig would have done that, but he did. (I expect the argument about sales and money from the publisher was a large motivation.)
The original fugue finale was not the only concern about the quartet. As Joseph Kerman writes in his book about The Beethoven Quartets:
“In the B flat Quartet the play of contrast is pushed …. to the point at which the sense of continuity becomes, if not a matter of doubt, at least a recurrent subject of ironic inquiry. The problem of continuity comes up both among the movements and also within certain movements…”
In other words, the movements don’t seem to go together as they usually would in a classical quartet. They are all high quality music, but a bit of a potpourri. I think I found the answer to such concerns in the lectures Professor Robert Greenberg gave on the Beethoven Quartets for The Learning Company. Here, Greenberg explains that the movements do not progress in a linear fashion, starting in one place and moving in one direction, one after the other. Rather, each of the first five movements do not relate directly to each other, but all look forward and connect to the Grosse Fuge at the end. The fugue is not just an apotheosis, but a synthesis of ideas presented in each of the preceding pieces. Beethoven has hit upon a different way of organizing the forms in a large scale work. (And he has done so with absolute genius.)
I have to admit, it took me quite a bit of listening to the Grosse Fuge to come around to this viewpoint. The Fugue is intense, overpowering, and is as concentrated music as anyone has ever written. After I had the Fugue firmly in my ears, I could listen to the first five movements and hear how each related to the original finale. It became a completely different listening experience for me, and revealed an entirely new depth to Beethoven’s musical thought. For this reason, I humbly put forth the opinion that Ludwig should not have replaced the Grosse Fuge with the new rondo finale. It removes the thing to which each of the preceding movements relate. So what if it is challenging to the listener? A little bit of challenge is healthy.
You are, of course, free to form your own opinions. Below you will find a high quality performance of the Opus 130 Quartet with the Rondo that was Ludwig’s last thought on the matter. The second video is the same musicians playing the Grosse Fuge that was the original finale of the Quartet. Each has its merits, but you know which I prefer. Please enjoy!