Holy Song of Thanksgiving – Beethoven’s String Quartet number 15

In the spring of 1825, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, an Austrian violinist, was engaged to perform the premiere of Beethoven’s latest quartet, written some 15 years after his last quartet which premiered in 1810. Schuppanzigh, with his quartet consisting of Karl Holz on second violin, Franz Weiss on viola and Nikolaus Kraft on cello, gave the first performance of this piece on 6 November 1825, and whilst reports said Beethoven was not pleased with the performance and blamed Schuppanzigh, the quartet would go on to perform the two other quartets that were commissioned by the Russian Count Nikolay Galitzin.

This quartet is interesting for a number of reasons for lovers of Beethoven’s music. In it, we see Beethoven utilising recurring motifs, thematic material and even unused sketches from other works.

Manuscript of the Große Fuge.

In the first movement, Beethoven uses a motif of the second tetrachord of the harmonic minor scale, a motif that recurs throughout the late string quartets, as well as the Große Fuge. In addition, the movement deviates away from a standard sonata form, utilising three full rotations of expositional material, as opposed to the usual two. This has produced a variety of analytical interpretations.

The second movement sees Beethoven move away from his preferred Scherzo and Trio, and instead utilises a minuet and trio form that evokes a musette, reusing some of his Allemande WoO 81. Similar to the opening movement, the second movement begins on the leading note of the scale, which creates some rhythmic ambivalence.

The third movement – the longest of the quartet – alternates slow sections in the Lydian mode, and faster sections in D. This movement is headed with the words “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart”, which translates as “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode.” In the winter of 1824-25, Beethoven suffered from a serious illness from which he feared would be fatal. Thankfully, he survived his battle with this intestinal disorder, and wrote this movement to give thanks for his survival.

A Brief march in A major for the fourth movement leads into a recitative-like passage before a sonata rondo form fifth movement. The theme for this movement was originally meant for an instrumental conclusion for his Ninth Symphony, premiered in 1824. The recitative-like passage is an interesting inclusion, linking to the recitative like bass solo prior to the famous “Ode to Joy” chorus.

Enjoy this performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 15, Op. 132, by the Alban Berg Quartet.

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