Catchy Tune

‘Do you recognise this?’ asked my son, tapping a rhythm out with his knife and fork, then humming the melody? It reminded me of something. I sang it back to him, but my tune, I realised, was part of a Beethoven late quartet. ‘It was the Harry Potter tune’, he said. I was close.

Funny that Beethoven put such a bouncy tune in a piece, Opus 130, that is – well, I was going to say heartbreaking or deeply melancholy, but is it? It depends.

Opus 130 famously has two endings. Originally Beethoven wrote a long, dissonant, tortured and difficult to play double fugue to end it. It sounds 20th Century, experimental, with only half a hand on tonality. It’s quite magnificent, but far too much for Beethoven’s publisher who asked for something more accessible, a little lighter; and got a gem of a piece as an alternative, very bouncy and jolly.

So which ending? The original one that wrings you out and leaves you emotionally gasping, or the pleasing little second one? It will change your conception of the whole piece. The tune I sang to my son was the beginning of the second movement – a scurrying presto. A happy, fast and exuberant piece? Yes, if you’re on the way to the second ending. But if you know the Grosse Fuge is waiting for you, then you might hear the furiously dabbling notes as manic and sinister.

How a piece of music sounds depends, amongst other things, on how you listen to it. You can choose.

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