Listening to Beethoven #67 – 2 Chorale fugues


Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven – bronzed lead medal by Edouard Gatteaux, Paris © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

2 Chorale fugues, Hess 239 for keyboard (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

no.1 in D minor
no.2 in G major

Dedication not known
Duration 9’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

As many an amateur composer will know, the art of writing a fugue is not an easy one. The rules are quite clear – you have a main theme, introduced by a specified number of parts – after which time the music develops with variants of that theme, and answers from clearly defined melodic sources.

Because of the precision often required, composers easily fell into the trap of writing dutiful, calculated music, losing the emotional content. The best fugues – Bach, Handel, the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony to give just three off the cuff examples – have everything.

At this stage in his career Beethoven was more interested in the workings than the content, hence the non-publication of these fugues – but it is clear his teacher Albrechtsberger was testing him in different forms, asking him here to write two fugues based on chorale (hymn) tunes.

Thoughts

The first of the Chorale Fugues is slow and sombre. The counterpoint flows easily and the parts weave in and out of each other easily. The second piece is free of strife and its workings can be easily followed, but again it is quite a dry piece – as you would expect from music written solely as a study aid.

The second piece does have a surprise in store, however, when Beethoven moves to the key of B minor and stops for a little, as though considering his next move. Inevitably, this being ‘school’, his next move is back to the home key and a calm finish.

Recordings used

Tobias Koch (fortepiano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Tobias Koch gives quite a deliberate performance, with the odd spotlight on key notes as they appear, but the music flows well. The second piece has a mottled texture with what seems to be the application of a dampener pedal. It gives an attractive sound.

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 GyrowetzThree Flute Quartets Op.11

Next up 3-Voice fugues Hess 237

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