This week’s music brings us to the close of our series on the three periods in Beethoven’s music. As you know, we have been learning about each of these periods through Beethoven’s string quartets. Today we will conclude with the monumental Grosse Fugue, a single-movement work for string quartet that pushed chamber music to its outermost limits. It is for this reason that the Grosse Fugue was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft as one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
There is perhaps no better way to end our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music than with the Grosse Fugue. It represents Beethoven’s most daring experimentation phase, in which he takes the conventional forms of musical structure and stretches them as far as they will go. In the Grosse Fugue, Beethoven pushes the four instruments to the brink, waiting until they are on the edge of the cliff before pulling them back. It is the ultimate adrenaline rush, the ultimate risk-taking adventure. It has a jaggedness that we aren’t using to hearing in Classical Era repertoire. It varies between lyric whispers and explosive octave runs in which the four instruments are tangled in combat as they tumble through the air. Yet it’s external chaos belies the perfectly ordered fugal structure that Beethoven underlays the entire work with.
The renowned twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky famously said that the Grosse Fugue would forever be considered a contemporary composition. He was right. It is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s generational genius.