that he made it does not prove that he ever changed his original preference.
There were many pressures on the composer at this stage of his life, and it seems less useful to try to discern his true intentions, which may anyway not have been consistent, than to approach on aesthetic principles the choice of which finale to perform. Moreover, even where recorded, Beethoven’s opinions on his own late works were pragmatic and occasionally fallible. We should remember that he contemplated in a letter to Ferdinand Ries the unthinkable possibility of performing his Hammerklavier sonata without the closing fugue and, in the more celebrated case of the ninth symphony, he had not only originally envisaged a quite different, purely instrumental finale, but even afterwards (according to his former pupil Carl Czerny) expressed the view that the choral last movement may have been a “blunder”.
The view, put forward by musicologists such as Barry Cooper, that the fugue is too massive and unwieldy a movement to sit at the end of the preceding five may be countered on several grounds. First, the opening movement is itself a huge piece, not much less long than the fugue. Secondly, the fournote cell plus the sixth already mentioned are transformed into one of the two main ideas developed in the fugue. This link, together with certain correspondences of ton
R IC H MON D
©E R IC
al architecture between the two movements, and the fact that they share the notion of conflicting ideas opposed and resolved, suggests that Beethoven conceived them as in some strong sense paired. The composer Robert Simpson sees them as “clearly part of a grand design”. Thirdly, although the sound-world of the original finale surpasses the first movement in its scale and strangeness, we again need look no further than the ninth symphony for a model of a “disproportionately” huge, formally unprecedented finale, whose novelties, coming at the conclusion of an already lengthy work, strain the endurance and credulity of the unfamiliar listener. Fourthly, the fact that, in each of the works under discussion, Beethoven plumbed new depths to produce such unimagined novelties should in itself make us hesitate before rejecting any of them, in the absence of firm evidence that he had recanted of his creation.
This is all the more so because we are concerned with a finale. The notorious “last movement problem”—how a composer creates a finale that is a true climax, as first realised in Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony—was regularly and definitively solved by Beethoven alone. Works by subsequent 19th-century composers rarely managed a solution that Beethoven pulled off time and again.
The second finale to the Op 130 quartet, composed in November 1826, is by contrast with the first a cheerful and witty sonatarondo. Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács quartet, has written candidly that he is more drawn to this finale not least because it is “less taxing to muscles and psyche”, but he acknowledges that audiences can feel “cheated of the heightened emotional drama” of the original by an alternative which “brushes off past conflicts and anguish”. Simpson says of this movement that “vast issues may be hinted at, or dismissed, by a joke, but they cannot be exhausted.” The second finale is an example of the exalted and rough humour which one finds strewn through the last quartets. One could never wish it out of existence. Maybe it is a piece more in proportion to at least some of the preceding movements. But it indeed does not exhaust or satisfyingly resolve the central paradox posed by the quartet: how is the irreconcilable to be reconciled?
Only the Grosse Fuge provides the complete musical answer. As the audience applauds at the end of the complete quartet in disbelief at both the composer’s and the players’ achievement, it is hard to imagine a listener wishing that the later-composed finale had been played instead. (A solution sometimes adopted in concert performance is for the quartet to be played as initially conceived, followed by the alternative finale as an encore. In this way, Beethoven’s last work becomes the concert’s last word, while the integrity of his original conception remains undisturbed.)
The Endellion quartet is therefore right to prefer playing Op 130 with the original finale. This is all the more so given that we can nowadays familiarise ourselves through repeated listening with the themes which make up the fugue’s initially intractable material, and which are then worked out with the abstract resources of pure genius. The better one knows this music, the more it fits in with all that precedes it, and the shorter the movement seems to become. While its first main section tests the powers of players and the attention of listeners almost to destruction in its depiction of a seemingly imminent chaos, the texture thereafter lightens, and the intellectual rigour, while never relaxed, is gradually tempered with a sense of reconciliation which finally resolves itself into a pure lightness of being. The experience of this resolution after 45 minutes of music-making is a rare thing. Whereas listening to the Grosse Fuge on its own can make the piece seem merely a noble eccentricity, understanding it as responding to and surpassing the challenge laid down in the opening movement, and as exorcising through sheer contrapuntal energy the intimate desolation of the cavatina, unlocks the key to Beethoven’s supposedly most enigmatic quartet once and for all.
Integrity and intelligence: The Endellion Quartet prefers Beethoven’s original ending