Beethoven’s Hymn of Thanksgiving

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Beethoven inscribed the transcendent third movement of his Op. 132 String Quartet with the descriptive title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). The words reflected Beethoven’s gratitude for a burst of renewed health, following a near-fatal stomach ailment during the winter of 1824-25. They are the words of a composer who, earlier in life, grappled with the devastating realities of hearing loss, and ultimately triumphed.

Written in the final two years of Beethoven’s life, following the completion of the Ninth Symphony, the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 enters the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s “late string quartets.” These works were so groundbreaking and radical that they left audiences baffled when they were first performed. The violinist and composer Louis Spohr called these quartets “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Another musician said, “we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” After hearing the Op. 131 Quartet, Franz Schubert remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” In the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky called the Große Fuge, Op. 133 “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Even Beethoven seems to have understood the power of these musical revelations. Writing in English to a friend in 1810 regarding the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95 he said, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” It would be easy to call Beethoven’s late string quartets “ahead of their time.” In fact, they seem eternally timeless. Listening to this music, you don’t get any sense of style or historical period. They become music in its purest form.

The “Holy song of thanksgiving” is the longest movement in the Op. 132 Quartet and comes at the heart of the five-movement work. The overlapping voices in the opening can be heard as a reference to the ghostly opening of the Quartet’s first movement. Throughout the third movement, the music alternates between the opening chorale (in modal F) and a slightly faster section in D major, which Beethoven marks, “with renewed strength.” Each time the D major section returns, it becomes more embellished, joyful and frolicking (listen to the sense of breathlessness in this passage). By contrast, the opening chorale becomes increasingly introverted. Toward the end of the movement, the music fades into open fifths (a sound which emerges out of silence in the opening of the Ninth Symphony). The final moments of the third movement reach for an ultimate climax and then fall back into tender acceptance. As the chorale returns one last time, giving each voice of the quartet a final statement, we sense that the music is trying to hang on, as if afraid to let go. When we reach the end, the final chord in F feels strangely unresolved, overpowered by the preceding passage’s convincing pull to C major. Beethoven’s “Holy song of Thanksgiving” moves beyond conventional key relationships, making us focus on the moment, rather than a far-off goal, and leaving us with a sense of the circular and eternal.

Beethoven and the Power of Four Notes

Unknown-20“Long…short, short, short…” This is the spirited little cell that quietly opens  Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. The entire piece grows from this almost sneaky opening in a way not unlike the famous, ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

As you listen to the first movement, notice all the ways these four notes return. Sometimes they’re hidden or played in quiet pizzicato. At other times you’ll hear the motive in the entire orchestra as a noble proclamation. This motive is tossed and turned throughout the  development section (beginning at 7:06). Then, listen to the way we get back home to the recap, again with these four simple notes (9:27). Along the way, we hear elements that would have shocked the first audiences, like the sudden, far out key change to E-flat major for the second theme (1:18).

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 was written between 1796 and 1797 and dedicated to the Countess of Bratislava. Beethoven gave the first performance on a piano tuned a half step too low (He transposed the entire concerto to C-sharp on sight)!

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin and the London Symphony with Sir Colin Davis:

  1. Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Largo 14:32
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando 25:09

Singing Along with the Vacuum Cleaner

composer Nico Muhly
composer Nico Muhly

What inescapable sounds surround us in the twenty-first century and how do they influence music? Nico Muhly’s 2012 albumDrones, is music which seems to emerge from the hum of the refrigerator or vacuum cleaner.

Muhly (b.1981) studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Julliard, served as Philip Glass’s copyist, and has collaborated with Björk and Usher. Like Gabriel Kahane, his style, which blends elements of rock and electronic music, is hard to pin down. Read an interview with Muhly about the music here.

Listen to Drones and Piano and consider how the music flows and develops. As I listened, I remembered that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  emerges out of silence with a similar open fifth drone…a raw musical element which embraces all possibilities.

Here is what Nico Muhly says about the piece:

I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them…The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e.

The final track on the CD is called Drones in Large Cycles:

Drones in Large Cycles gradually develops, becoming increasingly complex (listen to the multiple rhythmic layers around 5:08). It’s flowing through time, but is there any musical goal? Like many pop songs, and minimalism, this music is about enjoying the moment.

Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence…I find “observed silence” to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody’s basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents’ house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof.  Heaven.

-Nico Muhly