Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, Hess 29 (mp3)
Author: Armando Orlandi
When we compare the present Prelude and Fugue with the earlier Fugue in C, Hess 64 (also on this site), we can see the great progress Beethoven made in counterpoint under Albrechtsberger's guidance during the years 1794-95. While the Hess 64 fugue can be characterized as only an outward imitation, although a smart one, of the contrapuntal style, the Preludes and Fugues Hess 29-31 demonstrate real mastery of this complex aspect of music.
Hess 29 is written in so-called "free counterpoint", which allows far greater rhythmical and melodical freedom, and has therefore greater expressiveness than "strict counterpoint". By "free counterpoint" Albrechtsberger means more or less the style of J.S. Bach, while "strict counterpoint" is a theorized interpretation of de style of Da Palestrina (1525-1594), regarded by many as the greatest composer of Roman Catholic church music.
The Prelude, for two violins and one cello, was originally a "Nachahmungssatz", or "Imitative Movement," which is to say, a piece in which the voices imitate one another. In such a piece the student had to observe many specific rules, which, however, were not as strict as those in a fugue. Beethoven's autograph score is littered with corrections by Albrechtsberger. Later, when he wrote down a fair copy of this piece, Beethoven included all these corrections. This means that he, headstrong though he may have been, did accept their validity. That Beethoven had really mastered Albrechtsberger's teachings is indicated by the fact that once Beethoven even corrects a mistake by Albrechtsberger. In Nottebohm's words: "der Schueler hat den Meister gemeistert" ("the pupil has surpassed the master").
The fugue, also for three voices, is based on an expressive, chromatic theme. It does not occur on the list of themes which Albrechtsberger gave to his pupils. We therefore assume that it is by Beethoven. The great many strettos (=canons) over the main theme demonstrate that Albrechtsberger's constant emphasis on this point had paid off.
Beethoven was understandably proud of this achievement. When he combined his "Nachahmungssatz" with the fugue, to form the Prelude and Fugue as presented here in the midi, he was apparently thinking of a public performance, or even publication, of the piece. He notes on the fair copy: "mit einem Presto endigen" ("to end with a Presto"). However, the Presto was never written, nor was the piece published in Beethoven's lifetime.