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kreng and the “Heiliger Dankgesang”

The “Heiliger Dankgesang” is the name by which has become known the third and central movement of Beethoven’s string quartet in a minor, op. 132, one of the late quartets. As a piece of music the “Heiliger Dankgesang” is notoriously long, notoriously difficult, and notoriously beautiful; as the subject of an analytical chapter the “Heiliger Dankgesang” is notoriously conflicted.

To perform this music is to be almost immediately lost: lost harmonically, lost rhythmically, as well as lost on the page, notationally. It is as if Beethoven deliberately deprives the necessary structures of chamber music, composing instead something ambiguous: something that is not quite tonal, not quite in time, not quite possible.

This ambiguity is the result of a conflict at the heart of the “Heiliger Dankgesang”. The central argument of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” manifests structurally and is rooted fundamentally in issues of harmony and counterpoint, in essence conflicting ideas of tonality and modality, the latter an “older” kind of harmony for the most part associated with earlier composers such as Pachelbel or sometimes Buxtehude and Fux, as well as a rich history of liturgical music. Beethoven’s dedication of the movement to a Deity seemingly evokes this history, reading in full ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to a Deity, in the lydian Mode’ (‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart’). Ultimately, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” conflicts spiritual and physical, as befits Beethoven’s inscription of ‘feeling New Strength’ (’Neue Kraft fühlend’) which heads two middle sections to the movement which are instantly more conventional (although “conventional” means something rather different in the context of late Beethoven).

The structure of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” has been generally taken to be A B A B A (Kerman), the two B sections introduced ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’. The chapter proposes to distinguish the final section and reconsider the rest as a repeated two-part structure, A B :||. The final section, it is argued, stands apart both because it is much larger than its previous “iterations” and because it is the location of the ultimate confrontations of the central conflicts of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” and its wishful resolve.

The chapter draws together such abnormalities as the chord of open fifths in the final section, Beethoven’s infamous N.B. specifying the notation of B, not B♭, fugue, canon, as well as the unconventional counterpoint of the climax and the sublime top G of the violin within a narrative that actively negotiates the terms of its harmony and counterpoint, staging its dialogue to furnish with physical significance its conflicts. In addition, the chapter affords new significance to the concluding bars, whose melody spells out the chorale, only abridged in such a way as to skip the harmonic conflict entirely. Such a conclusion is rather poetically reflected in the identification of the physical imprint of Beethoven’s hand on this final page of the movement in the autograph manuscript, as if to represent a spiritual “giving-up” in which all that remains are traces of the physical.

The A section as it is initially presented alternates phrases of imitative composition (in crotchets) with a homophonic chorale (minims). Simply put, this is very unusual. In its second iteration the material is elaborated, to be further decorated in the third. Drawing on Schenker, voice-leading reductions reveal the shared structures of the opening phrases of the A sections. In the third and final A section, however, rather than continuing to the chorale as in its previous iterations, the imitation grows into a double fugal exposition in which the second subject adopts the chorale melody. As such, the double fugue brings together for the first time the two principal ideas of the A section within a formal structure. But the chorale in this format is incomplete, expressing only in part and in such a way that it ends in the dominant. The passage draws to a close after five balanced phrases, cadencing on a chord of open fifths on D (via C♯), a clear reference to the other A sections. Previously this has continued to a B section, ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’, whereas here Beethoven returns to the opening imitation once again. It appears that the meaning of the chord of fifths is rather that it does not progress as before to a further B section, ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’, instead instigating what is essentially a reattempt with regards to transforming the material of the A section. The final A section, in other words, presents as a two-part structure, articulated by the chord of fifths, whose absence of a third represents a rejection of the “strength” of the B section.

Melody and chorale sound together in full for the first time in the second part of the final A section which is when the first violin soars to its famous top G. While this may satisfy a formal ambition of the movement, it is not until later that the harmonic conflict is resolved. Horizontally, the harmonic conflict is represented by the stepwise progression F-G which encapsulates the conflicting notions of tonic and dominant shared between F Major and the Lydian, whose raised fourth can make a tonic of its subdominant. The climactic phrase of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” ultimately serves to provide fundamental support for 2̂, securing F as the tonic. Whether this resolve is indeed Lydian and not in fact F Major is another matter. Indeed, this, the chapter argues, is the fundamental significance of Beethoven’s infamous N.B. which adamantly maintains a Lydian facade despite or, rather, because of its ultimately tonal function. Furthermore, the concluding phrase of the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, it is proposed, presents the chorale melody in full, altering the final F-G-F to to F-A-F, literally skipping the conflict in spiritual embrace. Below, we see the imprint of the fingers of Beethoven’s left hand.

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Chapter 5
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S. Crayton: ‘kreng and the “Heiliger Dankgesang”’, Out of Order (University of Cambridge, 2023), pp. 105-121.

A recording of the Artemis Quartet performing the "Heiliger Dankgesang".


Crayton, S.: ‘The Registers of Narrative’ (University of Cambridge, 2017).

Huxley, A.: Point Counter Point (London: Chatto & Windus, 1928).

Kerman, J.: The Beethoven Quartets (London: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Schenker, H.: Harmony, trans. E. M. Borgese, ed. O. Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

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