2000/01 GROSSE FUGE for 6 percussion and organ

GROSSE FUGE (2001) was written at the request of the Slagwerkgroep Den Haag.

The combination of percussion and organ, and the spatial distribution of the six players – preferably surrounding the audience – constituted a particular challenge that came with the commission. It immediately implied concern for the peculiar spatial problems, and a foregone interest in the variable and sometimes unpredictable acoustics of churches and cathedrals. My experience with organs and organ music and my frequent preoccupation with spatial arrangements of ensembles were in fact the driving forces for this commission. My ventures into these realms date back to 1968, when I wrote Huantan for organ and a wind ensemble split up into four groups, arranged around the audience and as far apart as possible. More recently I wrote In Paradisum for instrumental ensemble with 7 wind players spread out over the balconies around the concert hall and the rest of the ensemble on the stage. My contribution to the organ solo repertoire consists of Herfst (1965) and Jets d’Orgue I, II and III (1984-1991).

In the program notes I wrote the following:

Who writes Fugues nowadays? Let alone a ‘Grosse’. The cheek…

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is generally recognized as one of the master’s most poignant feats at the end of his life. In a last spasm he tries to prove to the world one more time, as it were, that ‘craftsmanship’ is, and always has been the foundation of his trade all along. It became a strange fugue, not unlike a few other fugues he wrote in his later works. Personally I never found them very successful but more like desperate attempts to breathe new life into a skill of considerable tradition, the visiting card of any respectable composer. This is virtually impossible in a language such as his, so drastically new and personal, with raw material and rules of engagement designed for such very different purposes. Mendelssohn and Reger for example simply made a few steps back in the knowledge that an old craft can only flourish amidst conventions that brought it about in the first place. But composers such as Schoenberg and Hindemith let themselves get stuck in rather spasmodic utterances of the contrapuntal idiom which may have given them a semblance of status in learned circles but failed to revive the craft in any meaningful way.

So why try it again? In my Grosse Fuge I have tried to exploit that impossibility of writing a real fugue to old prescriptions as a creative principle: where does it lead me if I try to apply the ground rules to a subject matter which seems to defy the fugue principles and how can I transform the problems that I encounter into a music which can survive in its own right and on its own terms? I was encouraged to follow this course by Beethoven’s idiosyncratic handling of his Grosse Fuge. Not because I am so impressed by the music or because I love it so much. But because I can identify with the devilish struggle it represents which, I can only hope, has sparked over into my Grosse Fuge

The first performances by the Slagwerkgroep Den Haag took place in The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam in September 2001 with Jonathan Stockhammer, conductor, and Jan Hage at the organ.

A 6-channel digital version was made in 2007 for the construction of an audio-visual version of the work by Jaap Drupsteen.