heiliger Dankgesang

Beethoven’s Holy Thanksgiving

In the postmodern world, the word “classical” is increasingly hard to define. Philologists and archaeologists use the term “classical civilisation” to refer to, in essence, the Greco-Roman world. This is, at best, a makeshift compromise. This is because, as we’ve noted before, the borders of “Greco” and “Roman” are a matter of perspective. Musicologists and historians of art use the word “classical” to describe a period intervening between two equally vague tendencies: “Baroque” and “Romantic”. The peevishly stupid people who dominate western academic culture use it to refer to anything they cannot understand and therefore resent.

Wherever we stand in relation to the term, our use of it is conditioned by who we are and where we come from. Whoever we are, and wherever we come from, as moderns, looking back should always carry with it a certain foreboding. We shudder at the paucity of our own powers. But the task of reintegrating the past, the “classical” is a perennial one. It is, in itself, one that has occupied some of the greatest men of history.

This is, of course, a project that can go horribly wrong. The cataclysm of 1789 AD managed to recycle all the horror of pagan antiquity without bothering with any of its virtues. Another great risk is in turning the past into a sterile cliche. But every now and then, someone manages to achieve a synthesis that brings new light to mankind. In this article we are going to consider one of them.

Beethoven and the Lydian Mode

In 1825 AD, Ludwig van Beethoven was recovering from a serious illness that could have ended his life. The relief of recovery prompted him to write a piece of music with a long and curious title: Holy Song of Thanks by a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. Now, I have been accused of trying to baptise the deist Beethoven, a charge of which I strenuously affirm my guilt. And his deliberate choice of “Gottheit” (Deity) is of a piece with his brazen (although temporary) admiration for the Revolution and for Napoleon, a man whose name I hesitate to even type. None of this is lost on me. But I feel confident enough to assert that this music is as irreducibly Christian as Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The deity who pities and heals the sick – one whom we had better hope is real – there is only one candidate. But before we continue, I should let you listen and make up your mind for yourself:

Why the Lydian Mode?

I confess that this is not music that I can hear too frequently. To do so would be to cheapen something sacred. But I never tire of reading abstruse musicological theses on Beethoven’s quartets, especially this one. One question that recurs concerns the title. Beethoven is surely toying with us with his long and rather ungainly title. He wants us to know that he is using the Lydian mode. He is explicitly referencing the classical (Greek) inheritance by pointing to this mode (the scale you would produce if you were to play the white keys between F and the next F on a keyboard). This has led one of Beethoven’s biographers to conclude that he chose the Lydian for its ancient connection to healing.

Another theory holds that by using the Lydian mode, Beethoven is keeping us in suspense. At several points in the opening, hymn-like section, it feels like we’ve arrived at a cadence, but in fact we haven’t. We get the feeling that everything is over, but it isn’t, and we carry on. Unlike strict tonality (major/minor), modality allows Beethoven to avoid absolute conclusions. You can hear this inconclusiveness in most of the received modes.

Personally, I’m content to find both of these compelling, even though there’s no way to settle the question. I’m not entirely sure that what we call “Lydian” faithfully reflects what Pythagoras would have understood by the term. I’m not even certain that there is an objectively historical connection between that and healing. We know that the Roman statesman Cassiodorus had this to say about this mode:

(It is) a remedy for excessive cares and weariness of the spirit: it restores it by relaxation, and refreshes it by pleasure.

An ancient temple in Lydia, the region of Anatolia from which we derive the name for the Lydian mode.

Healing, Carrying on, and Giving Thanks

This piece has come to mind on more than one occasion during the present ordeal that the world is going through in this year of Grace, 2020. As Lenin said, in a wildly different context: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”. We are seeing decades unfold now, and we all have a foreboding sense of our own guilt. 21st century man, like Daniel’s frightened king reading the writing on the wall, has been weighed in the balance, and he has been found wanting.

Nevertheless, there is hope. And for many of us, there will be a time to give Holy Thanksgiving for the passing of a great malady. When we get there, like Beethoven, we will have realised that the writing of ends is not in our power. And we will also be thrown back onto the resources of our plain language – for Beethoven, “Dankegesang”, for the Christian, “Eucharist”, Εὐχαριστία.

The other reason that this piece comes to me at this time, is that I am writing to commemorate the birthday of my late sister. On this, the 29th day of March, she entered the world, with a body that was never healed. She taught me everything I know, and she enjoyed Beethoven. On good days, music made her giggle. You’ve met her already, and she remains, to me, a universe.

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