Beethoven As A Cure: 250 Years On

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Roar writer Keval Nathwani on Beethoven’s The String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ and his impact 250 years later.

In the deepest throes of his depression, when he was facing his own mortality in its most raw form, Ludwig Van Beethoven composed The String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 in 1825.

This piece is also known as the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart, which when translated into English means, ‘The Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity’, in the Lydian Mode. It was written simply, for two violins, a viola, and a cello. No more and no less was required. 

In 1825 Beethoven was facing his own deafness, intestinal illness, increasing isolation from his family and friends, and near bipolar swings in temperament. He was sent by his doctor to recover in Baden. Yet from this tempestuous mind emerges, like a flower in spring, a piece of music so sublime and so effortlessly beautiful, that it could have come from the God himself. In the Heiliger Dankgesang, Beethoven offers from the depths of his heart a tribute to God for his life. It is, in the words of British Violinist Edwin Dusinberre, “a statement of faith”.

What is it, then, about the Heiliger Dankgesang that is so sublime?

In short, Beethoven imbibes the same powers of moral restoration that he felt in his recovery, into the fabric of the music itself. Put more simply, the music possesses an inherent therapeutic value. 

What Wordsworth might have called a sort of, “tranquil restoration”.

“Start listening to the Heiliger Dankgesang and reality seems to hold its breath and wait,” says Andrea Valentino in a piece for the BBC Culture Website.

Introduction - Beethoven: A Guide to Primary and Secondary Resources at the Library of Congress - Research Guides at Library of Congress
A moving and romanticised image of Beethoven conducting the 9th Symphony while deaf.

For the first three minutes forty eight seconds Beethoven introduces the first few notes, in a manner so heart rending that one can almost feel his pain and frustrations bleeding out of the music. Its length at molto adagio pace reminds me of an abandoned landscape, or a long voyage at sea. Perhaps reflecting Beethoven’s own long struggle with his illness. Here he is communicating his attempt at playing the long game, and coming to terms with his own mortality. Its ruminant quality is reminiscent of the religious music of the High Renaissance, and its beauty is no less transfixing.

And then Beethoven introduces an entirely new mood. He labels this section Neue Kraft fülend, ‘With Renewed Strength’. The earlier meditation is contrasted with a vibrant, rejoicing atmosphere full of ornaments, and trills. In this, Beethoven exemplifies his most famous musical trait, that of wild and frantic contrasts that provide a window into his mind and his heart. The symbolism is simple, the victory of health over illness. 

And yet, the music retreats back to its contemplative, introspective state. So having once defeated his illness, the depression returns, followed by another bout of glory and thanksgiving. All the while, he commands to his musicians to play, “with utmost, deepest, and sincere feeling.” 

For what reason? 

It is hard to speculate, the mind of Beethoven was much too complex for even the most qualified psychoanalysts to uncover. 

The answer, I believe, lies in Beethoven’s most famous written document, ‘The Heiligenstadt Testament’. In it, he declaims that;

“O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, […] I must live like an exile.” 

Written in 1802, a full 23 years before the Heiliger Dankgesang, Beethoven outlines his mental state with soul crushing dejection. Beethoven no longer has the hope and vitality of his earlier years, when he possessed his hearing. He is resigning to his fate, something he never fully accomplishes, hence the near psychedelic changes in mood in the Heiliger Dankgesang.

No one with an illness ever fully recovered. One has to contend with the potential of renewed bouts, medical check ups, complications, not to mention dealing with the mental scars. And yet, simply by communicating these feelings, Beethoven finds a purity so resonant that it cannot be bettered. 

Today when illness, depression, and all manner of earthly woes is afflicting humanity, it is comforting to reflect on ‘Beethoven’s Statement of Faith’. To listen and meditate on such a piece can give us hope. 

The parallels with the Coronavirus pandemic cannot be overstated. In the ‘Heligenstadt testament,’ Beethoven cries in frustration that;

“I have been cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible).”

While a coronavirus vaccine seems to be creeping over the horizon, the prospect of a never ending cycle of restrictions caused by this illness, is deeply reminiscent of the Heiliger Dankgesang. Perhaps then, the Dankgesang might provide us with the solace and inspiration that the struggling and the vulnerable so desperately crave. A note simply to tell them, you are not alone. 

2020 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Van Beethoven, the first rockstar, and a classical composer who can still, after his death, claim to have fans. Despite the limits imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, concert houses, musicians, artists, poets, and museums around the world are finding ways to celebrate Beethoven and his music. 

For centuries now, Beethoven has loomed large in the memories of European Civilisation, but he is more universal, and more approachable than he might initially seem. I hope that instead of hindering this anniversary, the coronavirus pandemic allows us to reconnect in new ways with this most remarkable of all Romantics. 

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