Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven - Heiliger dankgesang (Hymn of Thanksgiving)

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.  Immigrants are continually confused and bemused by this most American of concepts.
So we have a holiday where the Government wants us to give thanks?

Yes, that's the whole point.

What does the Government want us to give thanks for?

Doesn't matter.  They don't say.  It's for whatever you want.
And so we all give thanks for whatever we want.  It's an intensely personal experience, celebrating the citizen's individual relationship with Nature's God.

Beethoven wrote this in thanks for recovering from a serious illness, late in his life.  Published as one movement of his Fifteenth Quartet, it's known as the Hymn of Thanksgiving.

Musically, it's a very interesting piece.  I would go into the finer points of major vs. minor vs. Lydian scales and how they relate to the psychology of the listener ("mood") and composer (what was intended to be the mood), but it's already been done in a fabulous post over at (of all places) Daily Kos:

The form of the Heiliger Dankgesang is another great example of Beethoven expressing his music in new, creative structural forms.

The form of the movement can best be described as double variations on a theme.  Two themes alternate with each other, and each time they are performed, they are changed.  The first theme is in F Lydian, the alternating theme in D Major.  (Beethoven used this form in many of his other works, including the Adagio from his Symphony #9.

What is unique here is the way the two themes end up absorbing each other with each variation, becoming more alike, until, at the very end, they are merged.  If we label the two themes A and B, the first appearance of A consists of long, slow, sustained notes, making it hymn-like, churchish.  The major key B theme, marked on the score to be played "Neue Kraft fühlend" (/with renewed strength/), beginning with four strongly punctuated notes and syncopation, stuns us by its contrast.
There's no politics in this post, just great analysis of what's going on in this very interesting piece of music.  But we need to remember that this was a thanksgiving, and that if Beethoven were with us still, and we were to bring him this uniquely American concept, that he would have his own voice to add to ours in the nation wide hymn that will be heard later this week.


1 comment:

Gordon R. Durand said...

Thanks for posting that. I have two recordings of op. 132, but I never noticed its title, or knew the story.