Late Masterpieces
The unearthly sound of the opening fugue from Beethoven’s C# minor quartet is partly due to the key (not a resonant one for strings), partly due to the chromatic element in the theme (leading to predominantly dissonant harmony), and partly due to the rhythmic interplay of the four voices, which, after the strict fugal exposition of the first 16 bars, seem most intent on getting into step with each other and staying there. For this is a very free fugue (just as many of Bach’s fugues are free), where the full length subject returns only rarely throughout the movement, letting the intervening episodes carry the main argument. As soon as bar 20, the theme appears to want to return, with the first violin starting to introduce it in the high register three times – but each time only reaching the first three notes. That leads to the first real moment of calm, a strikingly homophonic passage beginning at the end of bar 27 and continuing on for a further six bars of crotchet movement with coordinated phrases. At bar 35 the cello does manage to play a version of the theme, but it’s not answered adequately in the other voices, other than in small fragments.

We head into a crescendo and a change of key (at letter B, bar 54), and here the full subject does appear, though only in diminished form. The rhythmic motion speeds up into quavers at the same point, but the voices once again forgo the chance of flowing rhythmic counterpoint and get back in step with each other for a further nine bars. Again the first violin makes a strong attempt to voice the subject, but this soon drops back into an eerie, canonical passage for the two violins alone, followed by an answering duo from the viola and cello. Another crescendo finally leads to the full theme’s return at bar 92, this time through multiple stretto entries, including a spacious augmented (half speed) version in the cello. This proves to be the climax of the movement, and from here the momentum collapses as the home key returns in stark octaves – before the music shifts up a semitone to move straight into the second, mellower movement, the D major tonality (a much more sympathetic key for strings) like a shaft of sunlight.

Beethoven’s model for this fugue was clearly Bach – there are thematic echoes with the C# minor fugue in the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier as well as with the second Kyrie from the Mass in B Minor. But there’s also some evidence that Beethoven had recently studied some early Renaissance works by Josquin, and the homophonic style may have been partly influenced by that. However, a listener unfamiliar with the piece would be more likely to guess that it was written more recently – Bartok and Shostakovich are sometimes not many steps away from this music.