Heiliger Dankgesang

Not much time to post these days, what with one thing and another, but music is always a good standby. In fact I’ve had this at the back of my mind for some time; hearing it on the radio last week gave me the nudge I needed to post it. I always feel a but uncomfortable about posting just a movement from a classical piece, but I think it is justifiable in this case. This is the 3rd Movement of String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132).

The third movement is headed with the words

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

I take the liberty of translating the first two words, using my schoolboy German, as “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving”; Beethoven wrote the piece after recovering from a very serious illness which he had feared might prove fatal. The movement begins in a mood of quiet humility but slowly develops into a sense of hope and deeply felt joy. The most remarkable  thing about this movement to me, though,  is that the music possesses the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. This music has a therapeutic value all of its own.

I don’t know if William Wordsworth (of whose poetry I am also extremely fond) ever had the chance to hear Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 , and in Tintern Abbey he was writing about the therapeutic power of nature rather than music, but surely the  “tranquil restoration” described in that poem is exactly the feeling  Beethoven achieves in his music:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, —
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

26 Responses to “Heiliger Dankgesang”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I adore Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet. Indeed, it’s probably my favourite quartet of all. It is a magnificent piece of music.

    I recall buying my first ever recording of the piece – by the Bartók Quartet coupled with Opus 135 – for £3.50 in the old Woolworth’s store in Canton, Cardiff, during the very difficult later days of my PhD work. It provided some solace for me during a trying period.

    My feelings about Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey are rather mixed. My problem is the subject: the great abbey at Tintern was a centre of learning that, like so many others in the 1530s, was destroyed at the command of a mad tyrant, with the books and manuscripts being lost, in some cases being deliberately burnt. It was a cultural catastrophe.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Good riddance to the monasteries, although Henry VIII did the right thing for the wrong reason.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I’m not sure I’d agree entirely. The abbeys and monasteries were great cultural centres and would have remained so had they endured. It is unlikely other institutions would have taken on that role for a few centuries more, and the libraries might have been lost without them. I would not have wanted a loss of the monasteries until other institutions could have taken over the cultural role, and that might not have been until the 19th century.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        To go deeper as ever involves complex issues, but for me the deepest is that if you call yourself a Christian then the New Testament makes it clear you are meant to live your life in the world. Your prayer life informs your worldly life and your worldly life throws up prayer needs; either without the other is an incomplete Christian life. The Founder of this faith never advocated total withdrawal – he often went off to the desert for prayer in solitude but he alwayds came back again to preach and to stand against evil in the world. And St Paul, though choosing to be celibate because of his travelling lifestyle, was intensely engaged with the world. The monasteries were deeply corrupt; when Shakespeare used “nunnery” it was understood as a double meaning for brothel, and the archives of the Provveditori sopra Monasteri, a group of magistrates charged by the Venetian authorities with cleaning up the city’s convents beginning in the early 16th century, contain no fewer than 20 volumes of trials for the cohabitation of monks and nuns.

      • Whatever one thinks of Christianity, in particular whether one doesn’t like it or whether one likes it but thinks that monasticism should not be part of it, and whatever one thinks of nuns and monks living together, I think Bryn’s point was that the monasteries preserved certain types of knowledge which might have been lost otherwise.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        But that knowledge wasn’t lost in England when the monasteries were dissolved, was it? In the next century the Royal Society was begun for the study of science, a discipline which by then was being energetically pursued in England; the knowledge was not imported from overseas monasteries as Bryn’s comment regarding the 19th century would imply.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        To say a little more… it was the Dark Ages during which the monasteries carried the torch of learning, and were not corrupt but had a healthy rather than an exploitative relationship with local communities. By the 16th century society was developed enough for people with an interest in learning to be able to associate for that purpose. Printing helped, of course.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Much of the historical knowledge – the history recorded in the monastic libraries – was lost. Some manuscripts were transferred into church, university or private collections, but many were not.

        There were, of course, only two universities in England at that time and very few learned societies. Printing was still in its infancy in England.

        I’m more familiar with the situation in Wales, and most of the manuscripts of Welsh monasteries were lost. Some were burnt on the spot. The most interesting were sent to Smithfield in London for burning. Others were used for scrap, being used for kindling fires, for wrapping food and for the purpose we use toilet paper today. The consequence is a loss of our history.

        The church needed fundmental reforms at that time. The trouble is the changes went far beyond religious reform into the destruction of cultural heritage.

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        The only writings that would have been lost forever would have been things specific to each monastery, such as records of the names and ages of monks, shopping lists, employment of locals, rents received etc. Historians have learned how to mine such things but I doubt that significant works were lost in the Dissolution, whereas in the Dark Ages some of the works of the ancient Greeks were preserved in only a single copy in monastic libraries. This is partly because by the 16th century printing had already outdated one of the main functions of monasteries, as mediaeval copyists.

        I’m sure that some cultural heritage was lost and I regret that, but it is not easy in such a religion-soaked milieu to decide what was religious reform and what was cultural vandalism, eg prayers in front of statues of (and addressing) Mary that were subsequently smashed.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        No, I disagree. Fundamental historical material was lost. What survives of British history is patchy, at least that not recorded in surviving official government records. Printing came too late to reproduce much – the number of books published in Britain at the time of the dissolution was very limited.

        I’m very aware that only a small minority of manuscripts survived from Welsh monasteries. Most material, local and national was lost. Much surviving material exists in single copies. We have to wonder what else of historical importance did not survive.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Bryn: Obviously I’m not going to ask you to do the impossible and quote from documents that were lost, but could you be as specific as possible about the sort of thing that you mean was lost? Then I might get your point better; I don’t wish us to talk past each other.

      • Bryn Jones Says:


        I’m more familiar with what happened in Wales. The introductory paragraphs to this article about the Reformation in Pembrokeshire illustrate the point (it’s by Sir Glanmor Williams, who was one of the leading authorities on the Reformation in Wales until his death on 2005).

        My own perspective is that the Reformation was absolutely necessary and mostly a good thing, but I profoundly wish it had not been destructive.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It appears to be records that vanished and stained glass windows and statues of saints smashed, and silverware melted down. The loss of records is a tragedy for historians and their readers, but what happened on the broad scale of interest to nonspecialists is well known. As for the craftsmanship… secular people might feel the same revulsion as protestants at the sight of people bowing down before those things. They were created for religious reasons and the idea of relocating them to museums so as to appreciate them as works of art would not have entered the head of either side in the Reformation.

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually Wordsworth’s poem isn’t really about the Abbey at all- its full title is “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey..” It’s about the surrounding countryside and the persistence of memory, not just in terms of sights and sounds but also of emotions.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, that is true. Perhaps I have associated the poem too strongly with the abbey itself, rather than the area around it.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Anyone know if the recent film “A Late Quartet” is any good?

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Some belated comments here… first, that listening to this movement as a result of this blog post has made me realise that I am (at last) ready for Beethoven’s late quartets. Second, I drove back from Cardiff (and Lohengrin) past Tintern Abbey. Third, I’ve just received the DVD of A Late Quartet in the post (on region-1 as it’s not out here yet on DVD, but I have multiregion kit).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      A Late Quartet is basically about the messy breakup of a rock band, except that they play violins, viola and cello.

      • And presumably without any groupies.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That’s not entirely the case, Phillip…

      • I haven’t seen the film yet. Is it worth seeing?

        Who is more accurate: Berardinelli or Ebert?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I enjoyed it and I’d guess that you would Phillip, but it’s not a DVD I intend to keep – it’s circulating among my friends and I don’t need it back if anybody is really grabbed by it. The interpersonal dynamics are acute; sometimes moving, occasionally amusing. Hard to imagine that Walken is not about to get out an Uzi and gun the rest down, though, after his role as Zorin in View To A Kill.

  4. […] nevertheless so exquisite on their own that I don’t mind at all hearing them separately. I posted the wonderful Heiliger Danksgesang (the third movement of Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132) some time ago. That’s a piece of […]

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