Among the turmoil and tragedy that has marked this year, 2020 has also seen celebrations and tributes on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. This article notes that one piece of music by Beethoven is particularly suited to pandemical times, and the inspiration for a poem in Ruth Padel’s new book, Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life: the third movement of a late string quartet, known as Heiliger Dankgesang (the Holy Song of Thanksgiving), which you can listen to here. The music gives thanks for health after a nearly fatal illness, and thus a danke after a period of darkness. It is a malady melody which transcends the ‘harm’ in ‘harmony’.
Beethoven composed the string quartet in 1825, a troubled year in his life. The article mentions his growing estrangement at the time even from loved ones, due perhaps to his deafness and moody temperament. Never one for politeness or social graces, like his hero Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not only a philosopher but also a composer, but whose mediocre works are only performed at Rousseau conferences), he was given to violent outbursts even against his family. Beethoven cut a strange and dishevelled figure in public, and would, according to a servant, ‘wander in the fields, calling, waving his arms about, moving slowly, then fast, then abruptly, stopping to scribble in his notebook.’ Consequently, he was even detained by police at one point for vagrancy. He was a discomposed composer who swung between upbeat and downbeat moods, out of tune with the rest of society.
In April of that year, Beethoven was stricken with a gastrointestinal ailment. His physician directed the composer to leave Vienna and recover in the spa town of Baden, which meant, of course, that he would stay away from wieners. He was also prohibited from wine and liver dumplings. It may be that the illness was caused by excessive consumption of sausage and cheese, such that his doctor would have remarked that this was the wurst kase he had ever seen.
By the following month, despite his fear that the illness would be fatal, Beethoven began to recover. As he recuperated, he composed the Heilige Dankgesang. The music reflects his condition of gradual wellness: it starts in the F Lydian mode, without flats or sharps, at an extremely slow pace; then shifts to a mood of renewal in a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend, (‘feeling new strength’); but like the phases of recovery, oscillates between convalescent and dynamic sections; and culminates in sublime peace. That he composed this and other masterpieces after he had lost his sense of hearing is astonishing. It is, then, both deaf-defying and death-defying, an un-fugue-ettable work of art.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Beethoven-mitts Studies Program