Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge: Music, Meaning, and Beethoven's Most Difficult Work

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Book author
  1. Robert S. Kahn

The Grosse Fuge, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in his late period, has an involved and complicated history. Written for a string quartet but published as an independent work, the piece raises interesting questions about whether music without words can have meaning, and invokes speculation about the composer and his frame of mind when he wrote it. Kahn looks closely at the musical, aesthetic, philosophical, and historical problems the work raises, considering its history, structure and development, meaning, and response among critics and contemporaries. Kahn also studies Beethoven's difficulties with publishers and sponsors, his everyday life, and his character in light of recent advances in the pharmacology of depressive illness.

The book places both Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge in their historic and social contexts, arguing that Beethoven intended the Fuge as the finale of his String Quartet Opus 130 and created a substitute finale for the quartet at his publisher's urging; not because he was unhappy with the work. Beethoven is examined as a freelance musician: a vocation whose members were frequently excluded from society and the protection of its laws, including respect for copyright. Viewed in this light, Beethoven's famous quirks and resentments become understandable, even rational. Kahn also devotes a chapter to the phenomenon of synesthesia—a sense of motion through three-dimensional volumes of space—examining how some works of Western music can evoke synesthesia in listeners. He also speculates that Beethoven's creative dry spell in his late 40s was caused by an extended bout with clinical depression. Written for a general audience and including a bibliography and index, this fascinating study will interest scholars and fans of classical music and Beethoven.


Since Beethoven's day the gap between the general lover of concert music and the contemporary composer has widened into a gulf, and in the twentieth century the gulf became a chasm. The same gulf has opened between the general reader about music and the works of music historians and music theorists, who often write in a language nearly incomprehensible to the general reader.

A writer who tries to bridge this gulf is likely to be derided as a "popularizer," while standing little chance of truly becoming popular.

This is an unfortunate situation: for composers, for music lovers, for historians of music, and for people with a love of culture and reading. Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge: Music, Meaning, and Beethoven's Most Dfficult Work is written for people on both sides of that gap, and for those in the middle. It is for people who love music, and think about it, and believe that great music bears with it something important, though what that thing may be is elusive, perhaps unsayable.

I first heard Beethoven's Grosse Fuge thirty-five years ago as a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since then. I have been contemplating and planning this book since then. It is a reaction to the Grosse Fuge, an attempt to answer the question which the piece must raise in the mind of anyone who listens to it. That question is: What in God's name is going on here?

I fell in love with the Grosse Fuge at once. But my brain asked a second question. Granted that the piece works; granted that it is the most powerful music Beethoven ever wrote-and that means, in effect, the most powerful music anyone ever wrote-still: Why would anyone write something like this? This book is the shortest answer I could come up with. Beethoven has been subjected to more than two centuries of intense scrutiny. Yet some aspects of Beethoven's life, and some aspects of the Grosse Fuge, have not been revealed with sufficient clarity, possibly because they are in plain sight. This book offers three propositions about Beethoven's life, and three about his music.

First, that the Grosse Fuge-not the substitute finale that Beethoven wrote at the insistence of his publisher-belongs as the finale to his Opus 130 String Quartet in B-Flat, and that there is no evidence that Beethoven ever intended anything else.

Second, that the creative dry period that Beethoven suffered in his mid- to late forties-roughly from 18 14 through 18 19-was caused by depression.

Third, that though Beethoven clearly was an eccentric man, many of his quirks, including his furies and resentments, were rational reactions to a social and economic system that was stacked against the independent composer.

These aspects of Beethoven's life are treated in the first three chapters.​
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