Detailed Discussion: Beethoven: Grosse Fugue

This is a detailed discussion of Beethoven: Grosse Grosse Fugue
The discussion is based on a recording by the Emerson Quartet

However in this discussion, we will refer to another very good recording by the Alban Berg Quartet, which is available online on YouTube. It is split into two parts:

The discussion which follows was developed with the aid of an OMS Profile,  see the following .
OMS Composite Score is:  586

[0] Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue” Op. 133 (“GF”) is so remarkable, one might say it is in a class by itself. For a quick background on GF, see

[1] The primary effects that GF has on me personally:

[a] “It’s psychotic!” I have an intense desire to make sense of this work. My very first impression of GF is that it is crazed, and I cannot tolerate the situation, I must resolve it.
[b] Energizing: After listening to this work, I don’t want to sleep, I want to walk around waving my arms and singing that jagged fugal theme!
[c] Persistent: More than any other piece of music I can think of, GF has “stayed with me” – for decades.
[d] Extreme, strenuous: Something about pushing the limits, pushing the performers’ limits,  pushing my limits

[2] Some key questions about GF (see partial answers in [9], [10] below)

[a] Stravinsky said that GF is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”. What does this mean?
[b] Why GF has received such intense attention among serious musicians?
[3] The Overture (Part1 0:00 – 0:56) and beginning of the Fugue (Part1 starting at 0:57) are just about incomprehensible on the first hearing; and they also are disturbing! Tonal center can’t be found, melodic patterns are bizarre, it’s disjointed, …

Of course these opening measures “introduce” key materials, but why didn’t Beethoven introduce them in a more conservative or conventional manner? What was his objective?

One effect of the Overture/beginning is to startle (it’s an attention-grab); and to “disturb” (to motivate the listener to figure out what the heck is going on). The listener is incited with an intense desire to understand/comprehend/make-sense-of the work..

With most music, listening is not a goal-oriented experience (it’s mainly a passive experience). By contrast, GF seems to stimulate an intense goal-oriented behavior (the goal is to understand/comprehend/make-sense-of GF).

[4] Not only does GF stimulate many different receptors/mental-resources; it also has the effect of “flooding” many of these resources.

There is much more stimulation than can be processed consciously. So a lot of the processing is pushed “below the surface”.

At the same time, GF is extremely transparent – so there is a powerful tension brought between conscious and various levels below.

[5] Because of the “flooding”, GF in a sense takes control of a substantial portion of our mental resources.

LVB puts the (willing, receptive) listener temporarily into a manic, hyperbolic, slightly “psychotic” state. [Is this reflective of LVB’s mental state? “From the mind to the mind”?]  It’s a wild ride! Furthermore, the state persists to a degree even after the work has finished.

[6] There is tension between the highly-disjointed effects of the music (“irrational”, “psychotic”) vs the meticulously structured and transparent composition that is discovered when the work is inspected systematically.

[7] The numerous odd sonic effects, funny sounds help to maintain our attention (which otherwise would naturally wander at times).

[8] Very long “termination” effect: Starting at Part2 3:45, the work begins to sound like it is ending (numerous simple cadences to the home key of Bb major). This is a long multi-layered termination.

[9] What about Stravinsky’s remark above ([2a] above)? In what sense is GF an “absolutely contemporary piece of music”? By way of a partial answer: GF has the following characteristics which are typical of “contemporary music” (in the sense that Stravinsky probably meant the term):

[i] Highly inventive in numerous respects (contemporary music is almost never “routine”)
[ii] Pre-occupied with beauty vs non-beauty
[iii] Stimulates reflection on the part of the listener – when listening to contemporary music, it is typical that the listener will not only hear the music, but will also reflect on their experience of the music.

[10] Why has GF received such intense attention from serious musicians ([2b] above)? Perhaps Beethoven literally designed GF to elicit attention, analysis, and discussion! In any case, it is clear that there are certain features of GF (as discussed above) which would tend to elicit these kinds of responses.