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The Große Fuge (or Grosse Fuge, also known in English as Grand Fugue), Op. 133, is a single-movement composition for string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven. A massive double fugue, it originally served as the final movement of his Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major (Op. 130) but he replaced it with a new finale and published it separately in 1827 as Op. 133. It was composed in 1825, when Beethoven was completely deaf, and is considered one of his late quartets. It was first performed in 1826, as the finale of the B♭ quartet, by the Schuppanzigh Quartet.

The Große Fuge is famous for its extreme technical demands and its unrelentingly introspective nature,[1] even by the standards of his late period. It is the largest and most difficult of all of Beethoven’s string quartet movements.[2]

History of composition

Beethoven originally composed the Große Fuge as the final movement of his String Quartet No. 13 (Op. 130). When the work was first performed, the audience demanded encores of only two of the middle movements of the quartet. Beethoven, enraged, was reported to have growled, “And why didn’t they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!”[6]

However, the fugue was so demanding of contemporary performers and unpopular with audiences that Beethoven’s publisher, Matthias Artaria,[7] urged him to write a new finale for the string quartet. Beethoven, although notorious for his stubborn personality and indifference to public opinion or taste, acquiesced to his publisher’s request on this occasion. He composed a replacement finale in late 1826. In May 1827, about two months after Beethoven’s death, Artaria published the first edition of Op. 130 with the new finale, and the Große Fuge as Op. 133, as well as a four-hand piano arrangement, Op. 134.[8]

Analysis

The Große Fuge opens with a 24-bar Overtura, which introduces one of the two subjects of the fugue, a tune closely related to the one which opens the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. The music of the Overtura consists of a series of unresolved fragments separated by long pauses. The fragments anticipate the main sections of the fugue, but in reverse order.[2]

Beethoven then plunges into a violent and dissonant double fugue, with a second subject of dramatically leaping tones, and the four instruments of the quartet bursting out in triplets, dotted figures, and cross-rhythms.

Following this opening fugal section is a series of sections, in contrasting keys, rhythms and tempi. Sections often break off suddenly, without real preparation, to create a structural texture that is jagged and surprising. Toward the end, there is a slowing, with long pauses, leading into a recapitulation of the overture, and on to a rushing finale that ends the movement.

Like some of Beethoven’s other late finales, such as the “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony, the Fugue can be seen as a multi-movement form contained within a single large movement. Each of the smaller sections is built on a transformation of the original theme. In addition, the Große Fuge is an example of a compositional process Beethoven explored late in life: a combination of elements of variation form, sonata form, and fugue. The lyrical section in G♭ has the weight of an independent slow movement; some commentators have even attempted to analyze the entire piece in terms of sonata form.

During the 20th century, quartets came to play Op. 130 with the original Große Fuge finale. Opinion today is decisively in favor of using the fugue; most musicians would agree that the quartet is stronger in its original form.[9]

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