Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang" (Holy Thanksgiving)
String Quartet Opus 132, M3
String Quartet Opus 132, M3
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 5Transition 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)
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.