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Composed in 1825 as the finale of the String Quartet No. 14 in B-flat, Op. 130, the Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) baffled listeners and staggered players in that role. Beethoven himself must have felt that it was indeed simply too much, for he allowed his publisher to persuade him — with an additional fee — to replace with it a much shorter, milder movement, issuing the Grosse Fugue as a separate piece. (Beethoven also arranged it for piano four-hands as Op. 134.)

The work begins with a short Overtura, which originally served as a transition from the Op. 130 Quartet’s sublime Cavatina movement. Like an opera overture foreshadowing coming tunes, it presents the main subject of the fugue in four different guises.

And “great” is certainly the right word to characterize the fugue: great in time and sonic dimensions, and great in emotional vehemence and intellectual invention. Fugues are sometimes thought of as dry and abstract, but the essence of layering lines derived from the same subject is intensification and this one pounds relentlessly with leaping, angular fortissimo fury, before dropping into a pianissimo world. Variation is also a text book element of fugal elaboration, inverting or reversing shapes, stretching or compressing rhythms, and Beethoven puts his subjects through an astonishing assortment of stress tests, ending with a swiftly summarizing coda.