Listening to Beethoven #64 – 5 2-voice fugues


Beethoven medal von Otto Vogt © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

5 2-voice fugues, Hess 236 for piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

no.1 in D minor
no.2 in E (Phrygian mode)
no.3 in F major
no.4 in B flat major
no.5 in D minor

Dedication not known
Duration 5’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

By 1795, Beethoven was becoming a household name in Vienna – but he was diligently continuing his studies with Salieri and Albrechtsberger.

Salieri was teaching him all about expression in a vocal style, but Albrechtsberger was teaching him the nitty gritty of counterpoint. As anyone studying music for ‘A’ level or beyond knows, this could begin with a musical theme provided by the teacher, with the pupil encouraged to work it into a longer piece through tried and tested methods.

The fugue was one of these methods, perfected by Bach and Handel among many Baroque composers, and seen as the ultimate proof that a composer knew how to work their music. Lesser composers could make it sound like the solving of a mathematical equation, but the good ones knew how to rise above that so that their fugues still had human expression.

Some of the fruits of Beethoven’s ‘homework’ with Albrechtsberger in Vienna were preserved by the musicologist and composer Gustav Nottebohm in his Beethovens Studien, a 19th century publication giving us a fascinating insight into the composer’s background work.

These five two-voice fugues are built on themes written by Albrechtsberger himself, and are realised on the piano.

Thoughts

These musical sketches are fascinating because they sound so dutiful. It is as though Beethoven has taken his art to bits and laid it bare on the music room floor, before picking up the bit marked ‘counterpoint’ and taking it over to the piano.

The music is not always particularly involving but shows the workings of the inner mind – and the fragments are often left unfinished. If it were from the pen another composer it would doubtless be discarded, but because it is Beethoven it stands as an interesting collection of sketches, essential to his later development.

The two minor-key fugues are very solemn.

Recordings used

Tobias Koch (fortepiano) Deutsche Grammophon

Tobias Koch plays a fortepiano in these accounts of Beethoven’s exercises. The approach is a deliberate one, where you can sense the pupil feeling for the notes and not always reaching them.

Spotify links

Tobias Koch

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Haydn – Trio in D major XV:24

Next up O care selve (first version)

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