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[1770 - 1827]

Heiliger Dankgesang

an arrangement for symphony orchestra by Mark Starr
of the third movement (Molto adagio)
of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, opus 132

link to biography of Beethoven

A demo recording of this arrangement -- realized with digital musical sounds -- will begin to play automatically upon opening this page.  If you do not wish listen to it, please click on the STOP button (or the PAUSE button) on the media player, below. You may wish to adjust the volume on your computer to a more comfortable level.



In 1825, Beethoven fell gravely ill.  It is now known from recent analysis of strands of Beethoven's hair that he suffered for months from slow lead poisoning.   A modern-day Vienese pathologist, Dr. Christian Reiter,  has determined that Beethoven was accidentally poisoned by the medications administered by his physician, Dr. Wawruch.  At one point in his agony, Beethoven wrote a note to Dr. Wawruch.  The note has survived.  Beethoven urged the physician to come see him immediately to ease his pain, which was excruciating. 


Though bed-ridden for months, Beethoven survived his first bout of illness -- although it is now clear that he believed he came very close to death.  Following his partial recovery, he composed his final five string quartets. The String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, opus 132, contains a vast movement (the third, Molto Adagio) that is a musical description of his near-death experience, and an expression of his thanks to God for survival. This movement stands out not only as one of the composer's most intimate declarations of his faith, but also as one of his greatest musical works.

In five continuous sections, this 14-minute piece is one of Beethoven's most expansive creations. There are so many musical ideas crammed into the Heiliger Dankgesang, it fairly bursts at the seams. All of these ideas, many simultaneously presented, can barely be contained by the four lines in a string quartet. This orchestration has two goals: (1) to explore the sonorities that are only hinted at in string quartet form; and (2) to clarify all these complex musical ideas -- by differentiating them through contrasting instrumental timbres.

Perhaps the greatest audible revelation in this orchestration is the hymn (which appears to be original) that is embedded into the fabric of the Holy Song.  The contrapuntal writing is so complex, it is difficult for a typical listener to pick out the hymn tune from all the other voices. 


In the central (third) section, Beethoven presents this hymn tune in whole notes against dense polyphonic writing. But in the final section (the fifth,) Beethoven distintegrates the hymn tune into fragments and superimposes those fragments one on top of another, irregularly, like a patchwork quilt. In this final section, especially, the varied timbres of the woodwinds and horns will help the listener follow the various elements in what is one of Beethoven's most complex moments.

At the glacially slow tempo that Beethoven has indicated, this music in orchestral form sounds very much like some of Mahler's adagios, 75 years before Mahler composed them.

Of the five sections, the odd-numbered parts are the Holy Song, in three variations (I call them A1, A2 and A3.) The contrasting even-numbered sections are both Andantes, two versions of the same music, entitled 'Gathering New Strength.' Thus, the form of the entire movement is based on the rondo principle: A1, B1, A2, B2, A3.

Of great importance is that the entire character of this work is personal worship. It is not linked to Christian liturgy, like Beethoven's masses or Christ on the Mount of Olives. It is a declaration of his most profound beliefs, the musical equivalent of the Heilingstadt Testament. It is also the purest expression in all of music of the power of wellness to stimulate artistic creation.


The full score for Mark Starr's arrangement of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang is available online for perusal, audition, purchase, downloading and printing.  Here is a link to the full score:



Orchestral parts are available on rental from Noteworthy Musical Editions for public pperformances and/or commercial recordings.



1 flute
2 oboes,
2 clarinets
2 bassoons
1 contrabassoon

2 horns


duration: 15 minutes

link to sheet music online of Mark Starr's orchestral arrangement of Beethoven's "Heilger Dankgesang."

Beethoven on his Deathbed