Beethoven's Grosse Fuge arranged by Meirion Bowen


Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
arrangement for string quartet and string orchestra by Meirion Bowen
Commissioned by the London Chamber Orchestra.
First performed at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, March 31, 1992
First London performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, April 12, 1992
Further performances:
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, July 16, 1992
King's College, Cambridge, July 18, 1992

Minimum number of players:

  • solo string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello) plus:
  • 4 Violins I
  • 4 Violins II
  • 4 Violas
  • 3 Cellos
  • 2 Double-basses
  • (one double-bass player also doubles on claves)

The soloists (with the obvious exception of the cellist) should stand to play.

WARNING: This version is not suitable for historically authentic stringed instruments. Please leave this site immediately if you don't have modern instruments.


Beethoven conceived his Grosse Fuge as the sixth and final movement of his |String Quartet in B flat Major, Op.130, written in 1825. But the length, density, rhythmic obsessiveness and rhetoric, bordering on violence, that characterised this finale, quite defeated its first audience (and probably the performers too). The composer was thus persuaded to allow his publisher, M. Artaria, to bring out the Fugue as a separate work, and a year later he wrote a new, lightweight finale for the Quartet. Even today, the Grosse Fuge is considered very demanding both by executants and listeners.

Existing attempts to alleviate its rigours by transcribing it for string orchestra have (in my view) made the piece merely sound bland, especially given the prowess of modern string-players.

This new version puts the danger back into the work and often calls for string techniques more commonly found in the music of Bartok. In other words, it tries to recreate the pioneering spirit in which Beethoven composed the Grosse Fuge.

Using a solo quartet as well as a string orchestra also enables the structural contrasts implied within the score to be more effectively highlighted than in either the original string quartet version or later orchestral transcriptions. The expressive extremes of Beethoven's score - from gentlest intimacy to collective aggression - are emphasised: and individual gestures are lit up by the sonic equivalent to laser beams. Beethoven's notes have not be altered, though I have amplified the composer's (to my mind) rather matter-of-fact ending into something more exultant.

© Meirion Bowen (1998)

Scores and orchestral materials for Meirion Bowen´s arrangement of Beethoven´s Grosse Fuge are now available from:

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