The composer himself appears to agree. In the middle of his illness, Beethoven sent a short piece of music to his doctor. The accompanying lyrics proclaim:
Doctor, close the door against death,
Notes will help him who is in need.
To put it another way, if the Heiliger Dankgesang is partly an uncomplicated prayer of thanks to the Almighty, and partly a meditation on sickness and health, it may also symbolise the immense power of music – notes – to keep people going in times of strife. Nor is Beethoven alone in using his music this way. Battling leukaemia shortly before his death in 1945, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók quoted the Heiliger Dankgesang in his last piano concerto. After surviving a violent heart attack, Arnold Schoenberg may have been influenced by the movement in his 1946 string trio. For her part, Padel has read In the Lydian Mode at funerals, and suggests that her poem and the soaring music it represents may help listeners find calmness in sorrow. Theurer agrees. “I think that both playing and listening to [the movement] can be a deeply healing experience”.
Little wonder that the Heiliger Dankgesang has special resonance now – both Padel and Kapilow describe the deep impact the piece has on them during the current pandemic. With the Takács Quartet, moreover, Dusinberre recently performed the movement for an online concert, and recounts “the inner peace” the experience gave him. “In the midst of these awful circumstances – people are dealing with such uncertainty and illness and death – to play a piece like this can give us hope. That is where the power of the music is.”
And if his brush with mortality inspired Beethoven to write one of the most poignant works in all of Western music, Kapilow wonders if our own deep isolation might spark similar ingenuity – whether artistically or in the struggle for social justice. “Not only does a pandemic or a health crisis give you time to reflect, it changes who you are on the other side,” he says. “There is a tremendous awareness now of the inequality in America. If we could come out with anything as a country [like] what [Beethoven] came out with in the Heiliger Dankgesang, it might even have been worth it.” A lovely idea – and surely one that would have made even the peevish convalescent raise a smile.
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