As in all other professions, there exist musicians’ jokes. And a few of them focus on Beethoven’s Great Fugue. What should you do if you get lost in the Great Fugue? Either you knock your music stand down, or you keep playing and stop when the others stop.
As always, such jokes are revealing, as they allude to the Great Fugue’s fame as one of the undisputed masterpieces of the musical repertoire; to its extreme difficulty of performance; and also to the difficulty it poses to the listeners (since, as it is jokingly suggested, if you keep playing haphazard nobody will notice). Of course, this is far from true; however, undeniably, the Great Fugue is one of the most complex and challenging works for listeners and performers alike, as well as one of the most fascinating and intriguing.
At Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, in 1750, his memory was kept alive by a small (though devoted) circle of family members, disciples, and connoisseurs, i.e. the experts of the musical art who could appreciate the true worth of his music. The style fashionable at the time was very different from the tight complexity and intense expressiveness of his works; intricate counterpoints were accurately avoided by most musicians, Bach’s patient and painstaking compositional research was forgotten in favour of the immediacy of catchy tunes and brilliant coloraturas, and the affective component (which was indeed one of the characterizing features of the Empfindsamer Stil, the “sensitive style”) did in fact build on the Baroque theory of the affections, but also vastly differentiated itself from its ancestor.
Two of the genres in which Bach had been a master (not only practising them in their pure form, but also weaving many of his masterpieces through them), i.e. the Variations and the Fugue, underwent a distinct decrease in popularity (in the case of the Fugue, now practised mostly as an academic exercise or for solemn, hieratic pieces such as the endings of sacred music works), or an equally marked shift of perspective (from the speculative complexity of Bach’s variations on a bass, such as the Goldberg Variations, to the cheerful, fashionable immediacy of the “variationlets” on famous tunes, to use an image by E. T. A. Hoffmann).
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) belonged in a generation whose roots were in the Classical style and era, but whose latest fruits anticipated, created and expressed the new Romantic feeling. His life, short by modern standards, but relatively long for his times, was one of the most influential in the history of music: not only was his genius one of the most gifted of all times; not only was the composer a very public figure (rather different from Bach, for example), and thus under the spotlight with all of his new compositions; his very biography, with the tragedy of deafness, contributed to creating the myth of the “Genius” (which will become a crucial element of the Romantic aesthetics, and also of the rediscovery of Bach himself) and to expand the range of the permissible in music. Beethoven’s most daring experiments could be dismissed as the pitiable results of the musical fantasy of one who could not hear what he was writing, but they also opened up new horizons on which many “hearing” musicians would probably never have ventured.
In his youthful years, Beethoven had practised the Classical style, and written beautiful, cheerful and refreshing works in the fashion of the era. Some of his earlier Variations cycles are still very pleasurable both to play and to hear, though they certainly do not possess (nor they aim to) a great intellectual complexity. In his late twenties and thirties, the revolutionary spirit which had shaken Europe, at first with the French Revolution, and later with Napoleon’s ascent to power, had awakened his own rebellious spirit, encouraging him to push the boundaries of the expression in music – aided, in this task, also by the advent of the piano as “the” keyboard instrument. In fact, pianos had existed for almost a century already, but their system of sound production (the percussion of strings through hammers) had felicitously coexisted with the earlier system of plucked strings (harpsichord), only gradually emerging as the harpsichord’s rival and ultimately replacing it in the concert halls and in the fashionable salons.
In his later years, when indeed his deafness was practically total, Beethoven continued to search for new solutions in music, but, interestingly, he increasingly found them in the forms and genres of the past. His path to the renewal of the musical language coincided, to an unimaginable extent, with that trodden by Bach in his own last years. This path was marked by the focus on variations and fugue. Beethoven had always been a tireless explorer of the possibilities of a theme; the perfection of the Sonata form, reached in his Piano Sonatas, String Quartets and Symphonies, was largely built on his capability to create themes with a strong motivic component, which could be reduced to elementary forms with an enormous potential for further development. In the case of Variations and Fugues, however, his exploration of the theme took different forms: a rediscovery of the harmonic importance of the theme’s bass in the case of the Variations (so that his Diabelli Variations have much in common with Bach’s Goldberg Variations), along with an increasingly ecumenical concept of what could qualify as a variation on a theme; and a painstaking study of the contrapuntal possibilities of a subject in the case of polyphonic forms. His last Piano Sonatas are populated, with increasing frequency, by movements in the form of themes with variations (either explicitly labelled as such or without a title) and by fugal movements, with a varying degree of strictness and consistency.
Along with these explorations of the structure of music, in its exquisitely architectural components, his study of the timbre was steadily progressing – in spite of his inability to hear what he was creating. While this dimension is clearly observable in the fugal movements too, in the variations he exploited all of the resources of the instrument or instruments he was writing for, with particular attention to the piano’s possibilities.
Thus, it is not by chance that his Sonata op. 106 is now known as Hammerklavier Sonata. The Hammerklavier was the “hammer keyboard”, the piano; and while the use of destining a keyboard piece for performance “on the piano or harpsichord” survived for a rather long time after the piano had supplanted its ancestor, in several of Beethoven’s last Piano Sonatas the possibility of playing them on the harpsichord is explicitly ruled out (in the case of many of his earlier Sonatas, this possibility was, of course, excluded by the musical writing itself, e.g. by his pedaling prescriptions). However, though the title “Sonata for the Hammerklavier” is not exclusively attributed to op. 106, it is suggestive that this particular Sonata has received and maintained this nickname. In no other Sonata by Beethoven, in fact, the complexity of writing, the technical difficulty, and the timbral contrasts are as pronounced as in this work. From the time of its composition, and until present-day, Op. 106 represents one of the undisputed heights of piano performance, not to be attempted by anyone who is not in perfect and full command of the piano technique and of the intellectual and emotional capability to understand, interpret and perform it. Interestingly, this Sonata has managed to defend itself from the attacks of the child prodigies; it still inspires a reverential awe in all who try to read it through.
Written between 1817 and 1819, it is exceedingly long to perform, and its four movements seem to inflate, each in its own way, the traditional forms of the Classical Sonata. The memorable opening of the first movement, with its powerful symphonic style, is the germinating cell from which most of the compositional material blossoms; contrapuntal sections are contrasted with the proudly chordal features of the incipit. The following Scherzo is deceivingly simple in its opening measures, but is memorable for its harmonic explorations and the breadth of its invention (including the expressive poetical mood of the Trio). The Adagio, in the distant key of f-sharp minor, is infused with a dense religious feeling, conveyed also by the chordal writing reminiscent of a Chorale; this solemn calm is shaken by the expressive inquietude of the following sections, where both the accompaniment and the melodies – when present – acquire a broad, and extremely human, dimension.
It is however the concluding Fugue, in the fourth movement, which has impressed most deeply the contemporaneous listeners. It is a masterly (and yet far from textbook-style) Fugue, “with some licenses”, as stated by the composer himself; a piece whose extreme compositional and performative difficulty is matched only by its transcendent beauty. It is a beauty which may not be immediately appealing; it challenges the listener, with a sovereign disdain for the “catchy tune”; yet, as in the case of many of Bach’s masterpieces, it never ceases to reveal hidden gems and treasures, and appeals most to those who understand music best.
The same features, though on an even larger scale, are found in the equally famous Great Fugue, originally written for string quartet. It had been intended as the final movement of a Sonata form in turn (for String Quartet op. 130), however, on the publisher’s prompting, it was separated from its original destination and became a standalone. The risk of “getting lost”, as in the joke quoted at the beginning of this booklet, is due to the extreme intricacy of its contrapuntal texture, which eludes those “meeting points” of the harmonic writing which work as compasses for performers and listeners alike; however, it is precisely here that its beauty shines most, in that it reveals us an unexplored world, an uncharted land in which we have only to trust the composer, and to proceed almost blindly in his wake. In the piano duet version recorded here (also original by Beethoven), the counterpoint shines to an even greater extent: deprived of the strings’ warm tone, its adamantine refinement and its undeniable emotional power become even more challenging, without losing any of their unforgettable fascination.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
lisa Viscarelli, Italian pianist born in Rome in 1989, graduated Piano with full marks and laud in 2010 with Elisabetta Pacelli at Rome Conservatory of Santa Cecilia and in the same year won the "Via Vittoria" award with a scholarship as the best graduate of the academic year. She has distinguished herself and received numerous awards in national and international competitions including the "Accademia Award" in Rome, Campochiaro, Taranto, Camerino, Ischia International Competitions and others. She has actively participated in master classes with numerous international pianists such as Pietro De Maria, Andrea Lucchesini, Gloria Lanni, Alicja Paleta-Bugaj, Roberto Prosseda, Boris Berman and others. She regularly plays concerts in Italy and abroad.
The Italian pianist Giuseppe Rossi studied with Almerindo D’Amato and Elisabetta Pacelli at the Conservatory “Santa Cecilia” in Rome, where he graduated with honors in 2006. He then continued his studies with Aldo Ciccolini, Ivan Donchev and Maurizio Baglini. In 2012 he obtained the Specialty Degree in Chamber Music at the “Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia”. He kept perfecting chamber music under the guidance of Bruno Canino, Andrea Lucchesini and the Trio di Parma. He performed in several prestigious venues, such as Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Aula Magna of Roma Tre University, Sala Casella, Teatro Bibiena in Mantova, Palazzo Borromeo in Milan and Médiathèque Centrale de Montpellier. Nowadays he keeps playing across Europe, with concerts in Germany and Russia, where he performed at the Conservatory Rachmaninov in Kaliningrad. His repertoire ranges from William Byrd to contemporary music, passing through less known artists such as Alice Tegner, and focuses his musical research on Beethoven and Schumann. He also enjoy dedicating part of his activity to new partnerships in chamber music, and he regularly performs with the violinist Alessandra Xanto in their “Duo Fenice” and the pianist Elisa Viscarelli.
Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.