Beethoven, Heiliger Dankgesang

During last week I was thinking what to post for this week, now that it is time to show something else than piano music. I got some interesting hints on old music from John Dowland and I went to a very nice concert of Brad Mehldau. But in the end, I found inspiration for a new post while listening this morning to Radio 4’s Sunday morning concerto, hearing the beautiful Heiliger Dankgesang, the third movement from Beethoven’s 15th string quartet in A minor (op. 132).

In 1825, when Beethoven wrote the quartet, he had been deaf already for years (!). Beethoven had recovered from serious illness and this third movement of the quartet is a thanksgiving for his recovery, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart”. This Lydian mode is a key that gives the piece a church-like sound – it does not fall in the category of minor or major keys currently most common in the western world. When played on the piano, the Lydian mode starts in F and does not have any black keys. I tried playing the piano transcription, but it is nowhere as beautiful as the sound of four string instruments playing together.

The structure of this third movement is as follows (see also this blog):

  1. adagio in Lydian mode – 5 prelude and hymn pairs
  2. andante in D major (2:51)
  3. adagio in Lydian mode, variation on 1 (5:10)
  4. andante in D major, variation on 2 (7:45)
  5. adagio, “con intissimo sentimento” (10:06)

The slow movements are in fact indicated as molto adagio: really, really slow. They consist of prelude-like sections, where each of the string instruments (two violins, viola, cello) plays the four notes that form the melody, alternating each other; and hymn-like sections, twice as slow, creating an atmosphere of mystery, spirituality, as if choir is singing and praying. In this video Robert Kapilow says:

That slowness affects absolutely everything… when time slows down and you think slowly, you notice things that you otherwise would not have noticed. So much in this piece is about slowing life and breathing, down to a pace at which things that never make an impact, now make an impact.
All of the melodies, that don’t even sound like melodies… you have three and a half minute in Lydian mode, all white keys, so there is absolutely no dissonant, you start to enter this realm without any tension, without any direction.

But then! part 2 – D major! What a contrast! A leap of joy, a dance; this is the new energy, “renewed strength” Beethoven had experienced after recovering from his illness.
Subsequently Beethoven repeats part 1 and 2, but with more variation and faster notes in the slow section. And then, when part 5 appears, one expect to finish with the adagio, perhaps in a slight variation. But Beethoven suprises: this is not simply another variation, not a decoration: Beethoven shortens the melody of the hymn and turns it into the subject of a fugue, and the preludes are shaped into a countersubject of the fugue. Beethoven’s music is showing his admiration for Bach, something that is much more pronounced in his last compositions.

Much more on the structure of this piece in the following somewhat lengthy and but very interesting video:

Still hungry for more? Then read this article and let me know what its conclusion is.

Is this piece as powerful as the final movement of the 5th, as dazzling as the 3rd movement of the Waldstein, or as glorious as the final movement of the 9th? Perhaps not. However, although this may not be Beethoven’s paramount moment as a composer, it is per chance his greatest moment as a man. This is truly an ode to Infinity.

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