Fugue in C, Hess 64 (mp3)
Printed in the Hess Suppl. Vol. IX.
This is a splendid piece of bluff on Beethoven's part. He attempts to write music which is in fact beyond his technical skills at that moment, and almost manages to get away with it. He calls it a fugue, and it sounds like a fugue, but as such it is, after closer examination, open to some severe criticism. Written probably before his counterpoint studies with Albrechtsberger, this fugue shows some remarkable shortcomings.
For example, the entry of the second voice (bar 3), is wrong according the textbook rules: the notes G, B, D are a literal transposition of C, E, G of the first voice. That would only have been correct if the "Dux" ("leader") in the first voice had ended with a modulation to the dominant key, which is not the case here. The continuation of the second voice (bar 4) is also irregular, because from the 2nd beat onwards the theme has not been correctly transposed. Even in his later years Beethoven's treatment of the fugue-answer remained often somewhat unconventional; harsher critics may say that he never learned to write a proper fugue.
In bars 8 and 10, strettos on the main subject are suggested, however the theme is not maintained after the entry of the head motif. In bar 13, and again later in bars 20 and 21, the use of chain-dominants give the impression that Beethoven is falling back on a learned harmonic device, in order to mask a lack of contrapuntal skills. When the fugue reaches its dramatic highpoint with a diminished 7 chord, and a surprise modulation to the remote key of F sharp minor (bar 30), the writing is more harmonic than polyphonic.
Nevertheless, Hess 64 is, in its magnificent sound and quasi-learned writing, close enough to the real thing to fool by far the greater part of music lovers and musicians alike. Albrechtsberger however, on browsing through this fugue, would have realized that his new pupil had still a lot to learn.
It should be stressed that the real value of a piece of music does not depend on it conforming to petty textbook rules. The real significance of music is, as much as anything, a matter between the listener and the living sounds. The aforementioned shortcomings are therefore mainly of interest because of the light they shine on Beethoven's technical understanding at this particular moment in his development.
See also Biamonti 69