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It's Thanksgiving, and what better time for a seasonally themed edition of [Thursday] Classical Music Blogging.  Of course, since this is Wednesday, we are temporarily misnamed.  That's because I intend to be with family in Orange County, tomorrow, stuffing myself with stuffing!  To tide you over until next week, we'll hear Beethoven's Hymn of Thanksgiving.


Beethoven is the good stuff.  And from Beethoven's output of work, the Heiliger Dankgesang is one of the key works of his life, done near the end of his life, the good stuff of the good stuff.  

In his String Quartet number 15 in A minor, Opus 132, part of his late period, the fourth movement is given the unusual title "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode).  Beethoven composed it after recovering from a period of ill health.

[Note to readers: Since I'm intruding on Wednesday Night turf, it might be gracious to point out that there's another great diary series tonight, as well, Cfk's Bookflurry, available every Wednesday night this time.]

The title itself is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it isn't titled with a simple tempo marking, like "Allegro,", his usual practice.  Also, it announces his intention of using the Lydian Mode, which (get ready, short music lesson coming), at the time, was an archaic musical scale, neither major nor minor, one usually associated with Renaissance church music.

What is Lydian Mode?

Back in diary 4 of our series, we explained the differences between the Major and Minor scales and why they sounded differently.  As we recall, using just the white keys of a piano (none of those nasty black keys), we can play a C major scale by going upwards starting at C.  If we start at A, instead, using just white keys, we get the A minor scale.  That slight shift causes three of the notes in the minor scale to be flattened, relative to what we would expect from a major scale, and those flat notes give it its different flavor.

If we want to play a Lydian mode scale, however, we start at the F key and go up, just playing white keys.


F Lydian scale

Just to make it easier to see what changed, though, let's compare apples to oranges and show C Lydian next to C Major.  Notice how the fourth note has changed:


C Major scale


C Lydian scale

If we sing Do-re-mi in Lydian mode, Fa is sharp (/half a note higher than usual/).  It creates some interesting effects to those of us nurtured and grown up on major and minor key music and unused to this sound.

The opening theme of the Simpsons begins in Lydian mode.  The opening theme of the Jetsons cartoon series does as well -- in fact, the first time I heard the Simpsons theme, I remember thinking: "Jetsons rip-off."  Lydian is often used in rock and jazz, today, often for a special kind of effect.  I did some poking around for modern examples of Lydian mode.

For instance, here's Joe Satriani's guitar showpiece, Flying in a Blue Dream.  Can you hear the similarity between the opening notes and the Simpson's theme?

Here's another example, Blue Jay Way from The Beatle's Magical Mystery Tour, composed by George Harrison.

What do these Lydian songs have in common?  Major scale music sounds bright to modern ears; Minor scale music sound serious or sad.  Lydian seems slightly otherworldly and mystical.

Having said all that, Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang doesn't sound as radical as The Beatles or Joe Satriani.  His choice of Lydian for this work was very unusual for that particular time in history, but part of the reason for that seems to have been to give it a "retro" feel, specifically, retro to early 19th century ears.  Lydian would have been familiar to them from liturgical music, for instance some of the music of the Catholic Easter mass.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you can't tell it's not major key music, at least without my heads-up warning.  Beethoven is subtle in his use.  For instance, the sharpened fourth note isn't rubbed in your face very obviously, as it was with the previous examples.  It's the absence of the normal fourth note that creates its solemn, religious effect, here.

The absence of a normal fourth note also means one of the most common chords of major key music is gone, the subdominant (IV) chord.  Recall from previous lessons, like our diary OPUS 3, that you can make a pretty good garage band if you just know three chords, one of them being the subdominant -- and here we can't have it because one of the notes has been shifted out of place.  In fact, the new Lydian (IV) chord is a diminished chord, thus unstable.  When we hear it, it doesn't seem to want to stay there, but instead draws us forwards to the dominant (V) chord.  And that's how Beethoven uses it.

And this cautious ambiguity also creates a tonal fuzziness.  From the illustrations above, we know that F Lydian is made from the same notes as C major.  When playing in F Lydian, our familiarity with major key music makes us want to hear it all shift forward to C major.  Beethoven exploits that ambiguity, leaving us at times feeling homeless as it progresses, a beautiful and subtly executed magic trick.  Though the Lydian mode may have been an antiquity, its use, in this case, was very modern.

Beethoven, the Great Architect

The form of the Heiliger Dankgesang is another great example of Beethoven expressing his music in new, creative structural forms.

The form can of the movement can best be described as double variations on a theme.  Two themes alternate with each other, and each time they are performed, they are changed.  The first theme is in F Lydian, the alternating theme in D Major.  (Beethoven used this form in many of his other works, including the Adagio from his Symphony #9.

What is unique here is the way the two themes end up absorbing each other with each variation, becoming more alike, until, at the very end, they are merged.  If we label the two themes A and B, the first appearance of A consists of long, slow, sustained notes, making it hymn-like, churchish.  The major key B theme, marked on the score to be played "Neue Kraft fühlend" (/with renewed strength/), beginning with four strongly punctuated notes and syncopation, stuns us by its contrast,

But both themes are tied together by a four-note motif, one that recurs throughout the whole string quartet, although we are just concentrating on this one movement.  From the beginning, buried in the A theme, we hear it, low-high-lower-higher.  In the animated score video we're going to watch, it's the first three notes, three red and then one pink.  Sometimes it is turned upsid down (high to low), sometimes it is ornamented.  But it is usually buried within the hymnlike harmony.  It reappears in the B theme as the first four notes.

Robert Kapilow of Stanford School of Medicine has an hour-long Youtube lecture on this work analyzing it not just musically, but attempting to explain it as a musical allegory on recovery from illness.  It's worth listening to, but I suggest doing it after you've read the diary and listened to the whole piece.  Kapilow follows the different transformations that this same four-note motif takes.

"Heiliger Dankgesang" movement of the Beethoven String Quartet #15 in A minor, performers unknown.

First A variation (0:00 to 3:15)

In F Lydian.  It's all slow, solemn, and hymnlike.  The chords stand out; the melody, if any exists, lies submerged beneath it.  

As we approach the end of the first A section, the first sign of liveliness enters the music.

First B variation (3:17 to 5:32)

Suddenly we are in D major, and it's a very big change.  Strong music, powerful strokes of the strings, with bird twittering sounds in the violin accompaniment.

Second A variation (5:32 to 8:15)

Our hymn-like theme returns, but it has gained in rhythmic complexity.  The cello (the notes in blue in the vid), in particular, has picked up some of the rhythmic element of the B theme.

Second B variation (8:15 to 10:36)

Almost the same.

Third A variation (10:36 to 12:40)

It returns, and it has absorbed more rhythmic material from the B section.  The hymnal string parts have become a fugue, with overlapping sections out of sync, all derived from our four-note motif and from the rhythmic material of B.  At 12:09, the cello takes over, descending downwards while the other strings accompany it from above.  It ends in a sober moment on a D minor chord (we're still in F lydian) at 12:35)

Fourth and final A variation (12:40 to )

Without a B section, we launch into another A variation, but this one intensely personal.  Melodies have emerged from what began as very primal simple material.  At 13:00, the first violin (in red at the top, in the video) sings a searing melody.  The sound of this movement has become very intense and very personal.  

At 13:30, the main melody becomes agitated as the cello begins a series of hard-played long notes.  And at 13:46, they join him, all playing long note chords.  It's interesting, at this point, to identify the tonal center of the music.  It is in F Lydian, but it's hard not to hear the music as C major, and the ending in F, when it comes, used to come as a shock to me, as if something was missing.

At 14:08, yet another variation emerges out of the chords, this time played by the cello and viola together (green and blue), an ascending theme.

At 15:00, we get a G major 7th chord, followed by a C major chord.  Under any other circumstances, that would be a cadence in the key of C.  Nope.  It's Beethovenian mindfuck.  In the very next measure we resume with an F chord.  So the C chord to F was the cadence.  This recurring G to C to F sequence is what makes the music so ambiguous.

Yes, it occurs to me what esoteric bullshit this may seem to somebody who has never heard this piece before, but I've heard this  music too many times to count over about thirty-five years of listening to it.  I've never actually sat down with a guitar, before, and tried to figure out what was so baffling about it before.

So we continue from that F chord, certainly still in F Lydian, although we can't say FIRMLY so.  The mood has become slightly hushed.  Sustained chords create an atmosphere mystical and tender.  The music begins to almost fade away, ending very, very gently, on an F chord.

Next week:  Who knows?  I don't!

Originally posted to Dumbo on Wed Nov 24, 2010 at 05:04 PM PST.

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