Tuesday, August 10, 2010

8/10 Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang" Op.132

Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang" (Holy Thanksgiving) 
String Quartet Opus 132, M3

I just realized I have not posted a single entry about Beethoven's string quartets! Good Heavens. Since yesterday was all about short pieces, today is about B's longest string quartet movement, the 3rd movement "Heiliger Dankgesang" from String Quartet Opus 132.

This piece was written during and after Beethoven's struggle with a serious life-threatening illness. He thought he was going to die. But with the help of his doctor's advice ("avoid alcohol and coffee..."), the need to finish composing this quartet, and the Grace of God, he made it through. I mention God because B wrote this at the top of the score:
"Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart"
(A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode).

So basically the piece seems to reflect the uncertainty of a long illness, as well as the thanksgiving of a full recovery. Personally, I had alot of trouble getting my head around this one, it's extremely long and mostly slow-moving. Very easy to drift off on and get lost. But once I learned the inner structure of the piece I was able to enjoy it much more. For longer pieces, signposts are very helpful, which is why I will describe them here and why they are annotated in the widget below.  Much of my analysis comes from watching this great video, Robert Kapilow's "From Sickness to Health: Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang" which you can watch at the bottom.

Here's the basic structure:

Part A (F Lydian) This is made up of 5 prelude and hymnsong (chorale) pairs, each one different (making 10 distinct melodies). The prelude has 8 notes overlapping. The hymnsong also has 8 notes but is twice as slow. A timeless, almost "beseeching" mood.
  • Prelude 1 (slow), Hymnsong 1 (slower)
  • Prelude 2, Hymnsong 2
  • Prelude 3, Hymnsong 3
  • Prelude 4, Hymnsong 4
  • Prelude 5, Hymnsong 5
Transition to major key of D

Part B (D major) "Neue Kraft fühlend" (with renewed strength)  This part is faster, much happier in mood. It represents the joy of living, especially after overcoming a serious illness. Pretty dynamic and carefree.  Almost baroque and dance-like.

Part A Back to the 5 prelude and hymnsong pairs, but this time with some rhythmic variations. Somewhat more adventurous/dissonant.  More overlapping.
Transition to major key of D

Part B Back to the "joyful" music, but with more energy (notice pizzicato in the cello at the back end).

Part A fugue variation (I recommend just enjoying it and don't worry about the structure)
  • Part 1: double fugue from abbreviated 1st hymn subject (reduced to 5 notes) and prelude melody
  • Part 2: hymnsong fugue w full 8 notes, prelude melodies build to a intermediate climax
  • Part 3: hymnsong fugue w reduced 3 notes, 2 notes fug, 1 note, end.

"at the end the 6/3 chord of C major quietly dismisses modern tonality; what remains is either the most authentic spiritual illumination in music, or the incomprehensible abstract of a genius out of touch with reality." (Basil Lam, "Beethoven String Quartets", 1975)

Amen brutha.  "Heiliger Dankgesang" from String Quartet Opus 132 (LaSalle Quartet)
Beethoven String Quartet 15, Op.132 - III. Heiliger Dankgesang (analysis)

Some more commentary:
TheTakacs Quartet on Beethoven's Message to God

For those who like moving pictures:

Courtesy of the awesome The Music Animation Machine.

Update: Steven Malinowski has recently redone his animated video and written up a complementary analysis:

At the risk of making this a "Heiliger Dankgesang" shrine, here's yet one more thing to check out,  Mark Starr's fine arrangement of this quartet for full orchestra.  If you install the Sibelius SCORCH plug in, you can play the entire piece in MIDI with scrolling score...

Check it out.


  1. I mention God because B wrote this at the top of the score:

    "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart"
    (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode).

    Thanks momo17. I want to see what you think about this:

    Above you mention that Beethoven wrote this movement as a thank you to God. Though, you use the word Divinity? God could be considered a divinity though so could any other religious deity. Deity would be the better word when concerning God- because deity relates to the individual religion while divinity, in the more general sense, does not usually relate to a religion.

    Also, the correct translation of the word would be Godhead. There are many uses for the term Godhead in different religions. Though, I think the Gnostics were the first to "coin" the word Godhead. What the Gnostics meant by it was the Godhead is the supreme being and all powerful being. In other words, there is no "higher" being than the Godhead.

    I may be wrong, though wanted to see what you thought.

    All The Best,

  2. Hi Preston, wow that's an interesting question. The use of "Divinity" is actually the so-called "official" translation from Wikipedia, so I haven't given it that much thought. "Gottheit" sounds closer to "Godhead", yet Beethoven has always been portrayed as addressing the Hebrew God in his biographies. He received the last rites just before he died as well. On the other hand, he composed relatively little sacred music and tried to 'swindle' people into paying extra for the Mass in D, which doesn't sound very Catholic ;)

    I'll have to think about that some more....

  3. To my understanding many of the Gnostics were Israelites, as was Jesus. It seems that the King James version is a twisted version of the truth of the Hebrew version which is a twisted version of Gnostic thought, to my understanding. The Gnostic gospels are glorious and worth a good read.

    As I am sure you know, he received the last rights against his wish.

    I would not say he was Catholic, only born Catholic. He never showed any real belief in the church nor Catholicism.

    Sacred music in the sense of Hallelujah praise the divine- then no, you are right. I believe that a lot of the music Beethoven wrote was sacred, just not in the sense that it has to be a mass.

  4. Yeah, 'sacred' in the sense of masses and oratorios. Bach wrote 300 sacred oratorios and B wrote just "Christus.." I think...?

  5. I do not understand? To my mind, sacred relates not just to worship, etc., though also, to purity, etc. Such as, pure creations of a wholly pure being would be considered sacred. A soul who achieved Enlightenment or a state of purity would be considered sacred. Many things can be considered and are sacred- not just worship. It seems.

  6. "Sacred Music" is also used as a classification term I thought? - like "Baroque Music". I refer only to that meaning, not the actual sacredness of the music - all Beethoven is sacred in my book!

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_music

  8. Yes, you are right, religious music is the better term. The term "sacred music" is usually used when referring to 'religious music'.

    "...all Beethoven is sacred in my book!"

  9. did anyone do a schenker graph for this movement? even for the first section of it at least?

  10. I tend to go with Beethoven's own words as recorded in his conversation books when it comes to the Heiliger Dankgesang. Beethoven seems to have come to the--of necessity--tentatlive conclusion that there were no good answers to the big questions, that all we can do is ask . In the Heiliger Dankgesang, I hear Beethoven asking the big questions, and hinting at an answer the way an ancient galaxy hints at its shape through a gravitational lense. For me, the Heiliger Dankgesang is a laying-out of the human condition as Beethoven had experienced it--the transcendence of love and the tragedy of mortality blended in a way that no-one has accomplished before or since. I sometimes think Mahler came very close in some of his work to addressing the same human problem with the same precision, but I'm not sure, for me, that he comes quite as close as Beethoven does in his Heiliger Dankgesang (and elsewhere) to evoking or eliciting the divine light.

  11. Please join the Redwood Arts Council for a discussion of Beethoven String Quartets, including Op. 132, with the Miro Quartet musicians -- Friday, Jan 15, 2021 http://redwoodarts.org/concerts/concert7.html