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October 14, 2005

Beethoven discovery

The New York Times reported yesterday on a big Beethoven discovery -- a manuscript, in Beethoven's own hand, of his in-process transcription of the Grosse Fuge for piano four hands. If you're thinking, "Huh?" right about now, let the Times explain.

Any manuscript showing a composer's self-editing gives invaluable insight into his working methods, and this is a particularly rich example. Such second thoughts are particularly revealing in the case of Beethoven, who, never satisfied, honed his ideas brutally - unlike, say, Mozart, who was typically able to spill out a large score in nearly finished form.

What's more, this manuscript is among Beethoven's last, from the period when he was stone deaf. It not only depicts his thought processes at their most introspective and his working methods at their most intense, but also gives a sense of his concern for his legacy. The "Grosse Fuge," originally part of a string quartet, had been badly treated by a baffled public, and he was evidently eager to see it live on in a form in which music lovers could play it on their pianos at home.
The "Grosse Fuge" -- German for big or grand (not "gross") fugue, or in my translation, "big, badass fugue," or in this translation from the Japanese, "large Hu moth" -- was originally written as the sixth and final movement of one of Beethoven's late string quartets. At the first performance of the quartet, the audience and critic reaction was a lot like yours, i.e., "Huh?" The late quartets are completely sublime music, but can be somewhat difficult to understand, and the fugue, which is a complex work on its own and lasts 15 to 20 minutes, made the quartet it was part of even more difficult. The publisher persuaded Beethoven to write a new sixth movement by offering to pay him to publish the fugue as a freestanding work.

As the Times points out, there's a continuing controversy today over whether the fugue should be restored to its original role as the final movement of the quartet. The pro and con arguments are amusing if you think of them as comparable to a disagreement between "original intent" (Raoul Berger) and "original meaning" (Justice Scalia). The "pro" view is that Beethoven thought the fugue should be part of the quartet and changed his mind for money, all the while insulting the fools who didn't understand it. The "con" view is that Beethoven agreed to substitute a new movement and that we are looking at Beethoven's final decision. I once asked a professional string quartet violinist what he thought, and he proceeded to mock the opening of the substitute sixth movement (bouncing octaves in the accompaniment) and told me that Beethoven wrote it to make fun of his foolish critics. I personally like the substitute movement and think the fugue should stand on its own.

The fugue is a complex work, not a strict fugue like Bach's -- Beethoven rarely if ever wrote fugues according to the book -- but more of a free-flowing effort in several shorter movements. Here is a MIDI version for "string quartet," but I would encourage you to listen to the real thing. (By the way, here's a MIDI version of the transcription for piano four hands.) Segments of the fugue are almost inconceivable in music written in the 1820s, with harmonic clashes that presage the polytonal and atonal music of almost a century later. And even the more traditionally tonal majority of the fugue has an energy to it that verges on musical violence. It really is an amazing composition.

The Times article quotes some musicologists about the fugue:
Like Ms. Carbo, musicologists sounded stunned when read a description of the manuscript by Sotheby's, which will auction it on Dec. 1 in London. "Wow! Oh my God!" said Lewis Lockwood, a musicology professor at Harvard University and a Beethoven biographer. "This is big. This is very big."

Indeed it is.

Above all, it may shed light on Beethoven's conception of the "Grosse Fuge," a work with almost mythical status in the music world, variously described by historians as a "leviathan," a "symphonic poem" and an achievement on the scale of the finale of his Ninth Symphony and Bach's "Art of Fugue."
So when you go into your local CD store to buy a copy, make sure you ask for Beethoven's "Big Badass Fugue" or, better yet, his "Large Hu Moth."

UPDATE (12/1): The manuscript sold for $1.72 million to an anonymous buyer.

UPDATE (3/1): The anonymous buyer turns out to be Bruce Kovner, who donated it and other manuscripts to Juilliard.