Several months ago my husband and I received the annual music program from the local university in my town. We are very lucky that we live in a town with a university that attracts some of the best classical musicians and other artists in the world. This year the main focus was on Beethoven String Quartets, played by the Takács Quartet. The last of the performances focused on his later string quartets including the well-known Grosse Fuge Op. 133. Just imagine Beethoven at this time in 1825, already deaf, but music playing on and on in his genius head. Imagine him walking down the streets of Vienna talking to himself and humming the music, even conducting as he went along. This picture I’ve painted is based on true stories that exist in writing. People calling him a mad genius. If you have never heard his Grosse Fuge, I strongly encourage you to do so. The Alban Berg Quartet performs it here:
I believe the Grosse Fuge is one of Beethoven’s most intense pieces. His 9th Symphony, being a close second, in my mind. When I hear both, I feel intensely affected, and am reminded of my experiences (as a person with bipolar disorder) with bipolar mania. To me these pieces contain portions that hint at racing thoughts (flight of ideas), a primary symptom of bipolar mania. They also bring me feelings of elation (another manic symptom), even during times when I have been otherwise stable. They are like flashbacks. The fugue, in particular, reminds me of times when my racing thoughts repeated themselves over and over again, sometimes to the point of almost a blissful torture, if that makes any sense.
Many experts have speculated that Beethoven suffered from bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). Many writings documented periods of his depressions and periods of wild manic-like behaviors, and delusional writings. If this was indeed the case, then I believe he may have composed both the Grosse Fuge and at least portions of the 9th Symphony when in an elated hypomanic or manic state. He must have been! I relate to them so very well from my manic times. I hear and feel the intense beauty and even anxious anxiety (in some cases) even in the wildest portions.
Beethoven’s music was quite new in his times, the start of musical romanticism born from the height of the classical era. But pieces like his Grosse Fuge were nothing like anything heard before him or from him previously. Yes, the idea of the fugue was inspired by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach, but Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was like a fugue on steroids, or more accurately, marked by a period of insanity. In fact, it was so shocking and confusing to some that after the first performance he was asked to write an alternative to it, though in modern day the alternative is far less often performed. Beethoven (and people in modern days) don’t think the alternative measured up to the first version (the Grosse Fuge).
So my husband and I saw this amazing performance. But what was even more wonderful was that because I purchased the tickets literally the same day I received the annual program (months ago), I somehow managed to get the very best seats in the entire auditorium. They were first row center seats. We saw every expression and movement of the musicians. Their sweat, contorted red faces, and intensity. [It’s quite a physical challenge to perform.] The music seemed almost within hands reach of me.
During the Grosse Fuge, I myself became full of adrenaline and found myself sweating and hyperfocused on the music. I experienced an extreme high of awe. When the piece was over I then relaxed a bit, but I think my smile was wider than anyone elses in the entire auditorium. Those of you who have experienced elated hypomania or mania, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? That smile that seems to almost hurt because it reaches the bottoms of your eyes? My eyes then made contact with two of the musicians’. They must have known how affected I was. They received a standing ovation, multiple bravos (including mine) and 4 curtain calls. My smile continued hours afterwards. The piece was playing in my head over and over again. I felt like I remembered every note as we walked to our car, and as we drove home.
After the performance there was a free reception for all of the concert goers. We all slowly moved down the steps to the basement. I almost felt like I was being carried above the heads of the army of people. When we finally reached the reception tables the first I saw was one covered with what could literally have been hundreds of sugar cookies all decorated with various versions of Beethoven’s image. I told my husband that it looked like a huge orchestra of Beethovens. Imagine if you could have had THAT? Wonderful in a scary way! I’ll leave you with that thought.