Some two years before he died, having just recovered from a serious intestinal illness, Ludwig van Beethoven composed a long movement for string quartet, which he called “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode” (“Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart“). He used the piece as the third movement of his five-movement String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. The movement, marked molto adagio (“very slow”), alternates between two sections: a chorale (in modal F) and a faster section in D major, which Beethoven labeled “with renewed strength.” Beethoven’s string quartets (sixteen of them) are considered by many connoisseurs to be among the greatest artistic achievements of man, and this particular movement held by some to be perhaps the single greatest work of genius ever composed. Breathtaking in its delicate beauty, it suggests not merely a hymn to God, but perhaps a quiet conversation between God and a man making his peace with his Creator despite the deafness with which he has been cursed.

Below the performance of the work is a brief excerpt from the film, Copying Beethoven, which dramatizes Beethoven’s composing the “Holy Song.” And below that is a video of a lecture by musicologist Robert Kapilow, “From Sickness to Health: Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang,” which explains how the music of the piece was structured by the composer. —Editor

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The featured image is a portrait of Beethoven made in 1823 by Ferdinand Waldmuller. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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