Friday, April 2, 2021
The Opus 133 "Große Fuge" (Great Fugue) is the summit of Beethoven’s string quartets. With a duration of about sixteen minutes, it’s easily the longest fugue ever written for string quartet, although the finale of the Opus 106 Hammerklavier piano sonata has the same length and formal structure.
It was originally composed as the finale for the Opus 130 string quartet, but Beethoven was persuaded to publish it as a separate opus because of its length and difficulty of performance and comprehension.
The fugue itself is readily divided into five parts. The first, titled “Overture”, is a tableaux of the fugal subjects. The second part is the fugue itself, in which the themes are woven against one another in a blistering Allegro. This yields to a lyrical and soothing section which uses the same thematic material, this time in the major key. The brutal fugue then returns, this time subjecting the themes to an entire battery of transformations, including making the subjects longer, shorter, reversed, and even upside-down! Beethoven finally comes to our rescue, bringing back the happy music from the middle section, and leaving us with a reassuring slap on the back, encouraging us to come back soon and enjoy it even more.
Here is an excellent recording by the Amadeus Quartet: https://youtu.be/6ys7cb7Iw5w