LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)  

Heiliger Dankgesang, from Quartet op. 132


Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode” (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lycischen Tonart) is the expansive middle movement of the String Quartet op. 132 (completed in 1825), part of the so-called “Galitzen Quartets” (including opp. 127 and 130) for their commission by Prince Nikolas Galitzen. Proportionally, it is nearly the length of the first two movements combined, and is twice as long as the two movements following. Structurally, it is divided into five distinct parts (perhaps a microcosmic reflection of the Quartet’s five total movements) alternating the three hymn-like “holy song of thanks” (Heiliger Dankgesang) sections with the shimmering melodic lightness of the two “feeling new strength” (Neue Kraft fühlend) sections, forming a set of double variations as each repeats with increasing elaboration. Emotionally, the overt purpose as a song of thanks likely refers to Beethoven’s recovery from an abdominal illness, and perhaps also (as suggested by Maynard Solomon) the general idea of the healing powers of music for a beleaguered spirit. After all, in times of celebration or distress, we inevitably turn to music. Framing our emotions, it gathers the invisible murmurings of our hearts for contemplation; facilitating release, strengthening our resolve, imbuing hope.

What immediately confronts the listener is an opening gesture that expands and contracts like a quiet breath, which is strikingly similar in shape to two other seminal works written within a year or two of each other that and crowned the last three years of the composer’s life: the Adagio from the Symphony no. 9, and the String Quartet op. 130. The Heiliger Dankgesang commences reverently in one of the old church modes, Lydian, which, according to Renaissance music theorist Zarlino, “…is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly for that of the body.” There is very little dissonance in the first iteration, lending to the floating, otherworldly quality of its sound. Then, with three declamatory unisons that take grasp the listener as if to say, “pay special attention here,” the work shifts in D Major for the first of the two Neue Kraft fühlend sections. Beethoven tends to use trills as a kind of asterisk noting an important shift, and here, the first violin trembles with the onset of joy. Each subsequent restatement of the Heiliger Dankgesang and Neue Kraft fühlend gain confidence, strength, and resolve: passion, via dissonance and resolution, is infused into the Heiliger Dankgesang, whilst the intervallic jumps and increasingly intricate weaving in and out of the two violin parts instills the second Neue Kraft fühlend with enhanced exuberance. Finally, the work concludes with stabbing sforzandos as if pledging to go forward with conviction and purpose buoyed by spiritual and physical renewal.