Armageddon: Beethoven’s Final Statement

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

And now, the end. Like Bach before him, Beethoven ends (at least for this history) with a fugue. Beethoven had written a grand fugue to close his String Quartet No. 13, but the fugue was not well-received and, on the advice of his publishers, Beethoven ended up writing an alternative, and less satisfying, ending movement for that piece. The Grosse Fuge was posthumously released as a standalone statement of intent. It is wild, complex, dissonant, beautiful, heart-wrenching and absolutely, cataclysmically, epic work.

For me, the Grosse Fuge is not only the greatest work Beethoven ever wrote but just about the most astonishing piece in musical literature.

Glenn Gould

Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

Oskar Kokoschka to Arnold Schoenberg

The Grosse Fuge is not birth marked by its age, but forever contemporary.

Igor Stravinsky

The Grosse Fuge opens with a roughly 1 minute Overtura, in which Beethoven presents the four themes that he will revisit, in reverse order. The rest of the composition can be summarized as First Fugue, Second Fugue, March, Third Fugue, March (reprise), and Coda, with each of the fugues and the march based on one of the four themes. These themes are somewhat similar to each other, but vary considerably in rhythm and tempo. They are also quite dissonant (more on that later). The First Fugue begins at roughly the 1 minute mark, with Theme IV. This is no standard fugue: After a recitation of the theme, Beethoven presents three variations on that theme. At around the 5 minute mark, the tempo slows–meno mosso e moderato–and Theme III emerges in the violins. At around the 8 minute mark, the tempo noticably speeds up–allegro molto e con brio–and Theme II (the March) is heard. Less than a minute later, the dark and foreboding theme which opened the Overtura returns for Fugue Three.

And then, Beethoven really takes off to undiscovered lands. In what some call “an orgy of trills”, Beethoven takes the composition into what can only be described as a “development” section. For those keeping score, Beethoven has now combined a fugue with a theme and variation AND a sonata form, while not respecting the rules of any of them. In this quasi-development section, we can discern fragments of the three fugues, mangled nearly beyond all recognition. At last, at around the 11 minute mark, Theme III (the March) returns in what many have called a “recapitulation” of sorts before transitioning to a coda at around the 13 minute mark. Cycling through each of the themes, the fugue finally comes to an end as Theme IV seemlessly leads to the perfunctory, and unsatisfying, closing chords.

[T]he end of the Grosse Fuge contains a deeply personal valedictory message. After taking a simplistic and unattractive theme through the extraordinary paces of his imagination, Beethoven provides a final audience-pleasing fillip, but he dares us not to believe it for a moment, as such a brief gesture cannot possibly serve as a genuinely satisfying conclusion after such an outpouring of profound creativity. . . . Rather, Beethoven has laid out the pieces of a complex puzzle in the overture, shown us a few possible solutions and then sets out the components once again in the coda, shuffles his cards, hands them to us and challenges us to embark on our own creative quest. Having pushed music as far as he could to the farthest reaches of his own extraordinary invention, Beethoven simply leaves us his materials, shrugs and walks off, daring us to expand music yet further into realms where not even he was prepared to venture.

Peter Gutmann

The Grosse Fuge would take the better part of 100 years to enter the canon. Its first public performance would not come until 1859 and its extreme dissonances and complex structure continue to devide audiences to this day. In compositional circles, however, the Grosse Fuge started a revolution. Having erected his musical edifice surreptitiously from the inside, Beethoven’s new world fully burst forth in this great fugue, shattering the facade of Western music in the process. Theme I, a chromatic motif comprised of eight notes, is a harbinger of atonality and the twelve-tone serialism developed by Arnold Schoenberg For those who decry the atonal music of the 20th century, the Grosse Fuge is nothing less than Armageddon.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge in B-Flat, Op. 133:

In an age dominated by pessimism amidst the chaos of existence, Beethoven, particularly in his late period works, presents us with divine hope—lingering underneath the brutal chaos of his compositions is a tightly controlled order. Writing at the dawn of the breaking of European society, by reason of the Enlightenment as much as by the coming Industrial Revolution, Beethoven presents us with works of art that are the perfect summation of the human existence.

Here endeth Beethoven. We shall not see his like again.

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