Prelude and Fugue in F for String Quartet (1795), Hess 30
Author: Armando Orlandi
Much of what has been said about the Prelude and Fugue Hess 29, also applies here. Written in 1795 for Albrechtsberger, Hess 30 demonstrates real mastery over counterpoint.
As in the case of Hess 29, Beethoven combined a "Nachahmungssatz" with a fugue, arranging it for string quartet, with possibly the intention of publication. That it was not published may have been because contrapuntal writing of this sort was highly unfashionable at the time, and no publisher would want to run the risk of losing money.
Unfashionable as this music may have been, at least one person would have been very interested in these fruits of Beethoven's contrapuntal studies: Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803).
Even during the lifetimes of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and G.F. Handel (1685-1759), counterpoint had been generally in decline; in the second half of the 18th century there were only a few composers who had a decent mastery over it. In the emerging, new style, polyphonic writing was replaced by homophony, which has much greater transparancy. Thus music reflected the growing believe in reason.
Nevertheless, all over Europe there were tiny, isolated groups and individuals who would continue to study and play the works of Bach and Handel, just for themselves. In Vienna there was one such group around Baron van Swieten. They were not at all impressed by the modern music of their day, and were secretely hoping for a revival of the baroque style.
Perhaps that van Swieten introduced Mozart to the works of Handel and Bach with this secret agenda in mind, when Mozart lived in Vienna during the 1780's. This confrontation with serious counterpoint had a profound effect on Mozart, and resulted in such works as the Fugue in C minor, KV.426 (see Hess 35 on this site!), the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, KV.551, and the Requiem, KV.626.
When the young Beethoven moved to Vienna in the early 1790's, it was his abilty to play Bach's Wohltemperiertes Klavier, more than anything else, that made van Swieten take an interest in him. We can assume that van Swieten was hoping to influence the style of the young master in the same way as he had done in Mozart's case. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to think that Beethoven started his studies with Albrechtsberger on the instigation, at least partly, of van Swieten.
In Beethoven's Preludes and Fugues Hess 29, 30 and 31, van Swieten had the beginning of his revival of the baroque style. However, Beethoven's own agenda was very different from van Swieten's. Rather than being interested in counterpoint for the sake of counterpoint, Beethoven wanted to use it by way of dramatic contrast to harmonic writing. Polyphony and homophony was, in his approach, yet another polarity, like the major and minor modes, and loud versus soft music.
Only some twenty years later Beethoven would take an interest in counterpoint for its own sake, and that signalled the beginning of his Third Period. But even then Beethoven's handling of counterpoint would be rather different from that by a Bach or a Handel. This makes the Preludes and Fugues Hess 29-31 very different from anything else within Beethoven's oeuvre.