String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, designated as the 13th of Beethoven’s quartets, but actually his 14th in order of composition, was dedicated by the composer to the Russian Prince Golitsyn. It is one of the three quartets commissioned by the Prince, an amateur musician himself, in November 1822. The work did not have a simple genesis. The first version saw the light of day in November 1825 after eight months of work. Before it went to print, however, the publisher asked Beethoven to compose a new final movement. He felt that the extensive and complicated fugue was not a good fit for the rest of the work. (At the premiere of the quartet in its original version in March 1826, this movement did not meet with much appreciation. For example, one critic wrote in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that he “does not dare to interpret the meaning behind the fugue finale” because for him it was “as incomprehensible as Chinese”.) Beethoven therefore composed a new finale, publishing the fugue as an autonomous piece in 1827 entitled Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133. (The new final movement marked Finale: Allegro was the last piece of music Beethoven completed before his death in March, 1827. Its cheerful atmosphere, however, reveals nothing of Beethoven’s dismal health, troubled mind, or general exhaustion.)
This quartet is unusual in having six movements, the length of which is very uneven, while the individual movements are characterized by great variability. The opening movement is in sonata form and alternates between being contemplative and playful. The second movement is a lighter scherzo. The main theme of the third movement, Andante, is heard right at the beginning in the viola part and mixes a joyful mood with a certain amount of dreamy melancholy in an imaginative way. The fourth movement, Alla danza tedesca (“like a German dance”), is a scherzo. The deep, intensely emotional fifth movement, Cavatina, has singing quality suggested by its title (an operatic aria). It had a special effect on the sensitive Beethoven: in his own words, it brought him to tears every time he thought of it.
Grosse Fuge – the original final movement of String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 – consists of five sections, the first of which (marked Overtura by Beethoven) gives us some idea of what is to follow. The second section is the fugue proper, where the theme played by one instrument is gradually repeated and developed by other instruments. In this case, Beethoven presents two themes at once, so it is a double fugue. After the drama of the second section, the third section provides some calm and clarity, while the fourth section again revisits stormy waters – the composer plays with the thematic material of the fugue and varies it to such an extent that it sometimes gives the impression of chaos full of dissonances and rhythmic deviations. The last fifth section returns to the lifting middle section and leads to a triumphantly joyful conclusion.
Beethoven expressed his attitude to fugue in writing to Karl Holz, second violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet that first performed the String Quartet in B flat major in public in 1826, as follows: “To make a fugue requires no particular skill. In my student days I made dozens of them. But the fancy also wishes to exert its privileges, and today a new and really poetical element must be introduced into the old and traditional form.” There is a significant merit in the fact that Igor Stravinsky considered the Grosse Fugue to be a thoroughly contemporary work which “will be contemporary forever”.