The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2006.
Last summer, a librarian at the Palmer Theological Seminary, outside Philadelphia, reached onto the bottom shelf of a basement cabinet and pulled out a lost manuscript by Beethoven. It was a draft of an arrangement for piano, four hands, of the composer’s “Grosse Fuge,” or “Great Fugue” (or, as the cover inexplicably said, “Grande Tugue”). Once the property of a nineteenth-century industrialist-composer, it had disappeared, “Citizen Kane”-style, into the clutter of his belongings, some of which the seminary inherited. The manuscript was handed over to Sotheby’s, which sold it in December to an unnamed buyer for $1.95 million. Shortly before the sale, the manuscript was put on display. With some misgivings, I went to Sotheby’s to have a look.
I had reservations because there is something ghoulish about the cult of classical artifacts. Not even the most ambitious new work—Pascal Dusapin’s new Faust opera, for example, which opened last week in Berlin—inspires anything like the flurry of media interest that ensues whenever a scrap of Beethoven’s or Bach’s handwriting turns up in some Pennsylvania basement or Swabian attic. Even creepier is the attention devoted to organic relics of the Masters; someone recently wrote an entire book about Beethoven’s hair, and, a few weeks ago, Austrian television breathlessly reported on a DNA analysis of an alleged piece of Mozart’s skull. Like radical opera stagings, ventures in period performance practice, and gala birthday celebrations, manuscript finds are all too easily exploited as part of classical music’s wax-museum strategy, serving to reanimate the past, to give it the veneer of the new.
Yet the pull of the past can be hard to resist. There I was, staring transfixed at the pages on which Beethoven’s hand had copied out the wildest, grandest fugue ever composed. One reason that many distinguished people went gaga over this discovery—Lewis Lockwood, the leading American Beethoven authority, said to the Times, “Wow, oh my God!”—is that the Great Fugue is more than a piece; it’s a musicological Holy Grail, a vortex of ideas and implications. It is the most radical work by the most formidable composer in history, and, for composers who had to follow in Beethoven’s wake, it became a kind of political object. Arnold Schoenberg heard it as a premonition of atonality, a call for freedom from convention. (“Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge,” Oskar Kokoschka once said to Schoenberg.) Benjamin Britten, who took pride in tailoring his music to the needs of particular performers and places, was heard to complain that Beethoven’s late works were at times willfully bizarre, prophetic of avant-garde, obscurantist tendencies.
In fact, Beethoven was always negotiating between the demands of his muse and the desires of the world, as the history of the Great Fugue shows. It was written in 1825, as the final movement of the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130. Even before the first performance, it caused puzzlement, according to Beethoven’s conversation books, which allowed others to talk to him after he became deaf. “Why do you have two eighth notes [tied together] rather than a quarter note?” the violinist Karl Holz asked him. Evidently, Holz didn’t get a straight answer, for he posed the same question several months later. (The conversation books are Sphinx-like: many questions, few answers.) At the quartet’s première, in March, 1826, a debate immediately flared up; some listeners were fascinated by the Fugue, while others expressed the hope that Beethoven would replace it with a more friendly finale, which, surprisingly, he did. A colleague created a four-hand piano arrangement of the Fugue, so that people could come to terms with this strange creation. (Back then, arrangements served the function that recordings do now, spreading music to a wide public.) Beethoven found this version unsatisfactory, however, and redid the arrangement himself, making sure that the publisher paid him twelve ducats for his trouble.
What does the long-lost manuscript tell us about Beethoven’s thinking? I had only half an hour to look at it, with the indulgence of the Sotheby’s staff, and there is no guarantee that I would have been granted any great insights if I had stayed longer. But one thing that struck me was that Beethoven had tampered in an interesting way with the first bars of the Fugue’s introductory section. The quartet version begins with loud unison G’s, spread over three octaves and one and a half bars. In his initial draft of the piano arrangement, Beethoven replicated the original. Then, apparently, he decided that the G’s needed more strength and weight. The manuscript shows that he squeezed in two extra tremolando bars, expanding the moment in time. He also added octaves above and below, expanding it in space. The dynamics increased from forte to fortissimo. For the most part, the differences between the quartet and piano versions don’t seem profound, but this insistence on the G’s stands out.
Musicologists have long seen significance in the fact that Beethoven stresses G at the outset of the Fugue. When the piece is restored to its former position, as the finale of the Quartet Opus 130, a correspondence emerges: the first-violin part in the preceding movement, the Cavatina, comes to rest on the same note. In opera, a cavatina is generally an aria of a short and simple type; this one is as slow, gentle, and lyrical as the Fugue is headlong, ferocious, and cerebral. First, it sings, and then it sobs and shivers; one section is marked “beklemmt”—stifled, anguished. This is apocalyptic lyricism, which knows that it cannot last. That the Fugue so vehemently takes up the note on which the Cavatina ends seems almost like a destructive act. Looking at the manuscript, I thought, Beethoven’s fury is even stronger now. He is shaking his fist at the world.
Perhaps, though, Beethoven’s emotions were not so dire. Perhaps he simply wished to add some pizzazz, some drama, to his opening. The introduction is marked “Overtura,” which is an odd word to find in a fugue. In his later instrumental music, Beethoven sometimes played with vocal stylings, with arialike solos and recitativelike interludes. In the eighteen-twenties, the operas of Rossini were the rage, and Beethoven was both irritated and fascinated by the phenomenon. With the pseudo-operatic gestures of his late works, he seems to be paying half-ironic, half-sincere tribute to the popular music of his day. Beethoven and Rossini met in 1822, and, if Rossini’s report is to be believed, the old man expressed his delight with “The Barber of Seville,” while also making condescending remarks about Italians.
The Fugue is the consummation of Beethoven’s strict contrapuntal writing, which he succeeded in integrating into Classical forms. What if it were also some kind of crazed opera buffa, full of arguments, misunderstandings, confessions, and reconciliations? It has several passages of hushed expectation, corresponding to the favorite Rossinian device of the “frozen moment,” in which all the characters onstage pronounce themselves dumbfounded by some uncanny apparition or revelation. Also, its placement next to the Cavatina creates a familiar dramatic situation. Rossini wrote cavatinas of various kinds, but his preferred use of the form was as part of a larger scenic sequence in which a heroine meditates upon some great mishap in her life. First, seemingly overwhelmed by circumstances, she sings a slow, sad cavatina. There follows a fast, florid episode, which later came to be known as the cabaletta, in which the diva picks herself up, gets mad, and tests the extremes of her vocal range and agility. I’m ordinarily a docile girl, says Rosina in “Barber of Seville,” but if you cross me I turn into a viper. Perhaps the Great Fugue is Beethoven’s cabaletta—the masculine, Germanic equivalent of a diva on a tear.
My admittedly speculative theory about the Fugue was influenced by a particular performance that was ringing in my earphones as I went to and from Sotheby’s—the Takács Quartet’s recording, which appears on a recent three-CD set of Beethoven’s late quartets, on the Decca label. Over the past several years, the Takács players have been recording the complete Beethoven quartets, and their survey, now complete, stands as the most richly expressive modern account of this titanic cycle. Their way with the Fugue may disappoint those who want to hear a narrative of unrelenting struggle and agony; the players lavish all their inborn eloquence, warmth, and tonal security upon the music, taking it out of the mystic realm and making it more human. The performance makes the point that the tensions of the Fugue gradually subside after the initial firestorm, in which a hundred and twenty-eight consecutive bars are marked “forte” or above. The final section has a zesty, almost goofy tone. It sounds much like the short, happy finale that Beethoven later substituted for the Fugue.
The Takács players present the Quartet Opus 130 according to Beethoven’s original grand design. They are hardly the first ensemble to do so, but they make the strongest possible case. This astounding work runs the gamut of musical knowledge, from sonata-form cogitation to bel-canto aria, from peasant dance to counterpoint. In writing the Fugue, Beethoven wasn’t turning from a more popular to a more inward mode of composition, as Schoenberg thought; instead, he was showing, as Joseph Kerman argues in his classic book on the Beethoven quartets, that in any given genre or emotional world he would go to the extreme. In his last years, he went from the “Ode to Joy” to existential despair, and then back to childlike innocence. In Opus 130, he does it all in under an hour. This explains why, a hundred and eighty years after the fact, someone would pay nearly two million dollars for evidence of a menial arranging task that Beethoven considered a waste of his time.
If any living composer can challenge Beethoven on his transcendent turf, it is the eighty-two-year-old Transylvanian master György Ligeti, whom the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center recently celebrated in a three-concert festival. Reinbert de Leeuw, the conductor, dissolved the difficulties of the Chamber Concerto and the Hamburg Concerto; the soprano Barbara Hannigan ran brilliantly amok in a scene from the opera “Le Grand Macabre”; Pierre-Laurent Aimard made the piano Études glitter and roar. With Beethoven on the brain, I listened most closely to the Horn Trio, which Aimard, Mark Steinberg, and Marie Luise Neunecker played with precision and heart. Ligeti wrote it in 1982, just as he entered his own late period. It begins with a salute to Beethoven—a distorted variation of the “farewell” motif from the Sonata Opus 81a. It ends with a Lamento, a ravaged landscape full of dying cries, in which the composer seems to gaze back on a century that killed off most of his family and much of his faith in humanity. But the harmony never turns as dark as it should. Faint triads, stretched over many octaves, provide a glimmer of hope. At the end, three tones glow in the night: a G, low on the horn; a C, high on the violin; and an A, sounding weakly in the middle range of the piano. Here, too, is a slight echo. The notes appear in reverse order at the start of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet, in F major; below them are written the words “It must be.”