Auerbach on String Quartet No. 9

Danksagung / Thanksgiving


In one movement:

Preludium: Adagio –

Adagio molto – Andante (ma con moto) – Adagio molto – Andante (ma con moto) – Adagio molto –

Postludium: Adagio

This work is structuralized on Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart from his String Quartet no. 15 op. 132.

 In my Quartet No. 9, the entire Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanks) is present as its structural spine. In each of its sections, one instrument plays its line from Beethoven while the other three instruments play entirely original material.

Beethoven’s structure A-B-A1-B1-A2, where the contemplative slow “A” sections are marked Adagio molto and the “B”  Andante sections carry more dance-like, “renewed strength” energy, is preserved. The work is framed by additional short Preludium and Postludium, where no original Beethoven material is incorporated.

The use of Beethoven’s lines from Heiliger Dankgesang is as follows:

Preludium: Adagio – mm. 1 – 13 (14): No Beethoven material is used.

(A) Adagio molto – mm. 14 – 44: First Violin is from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang

(B) Andante (ma con moto) – mm. 45 – 97: Violoncello is from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang

(A1) Adagio molto – mm. 98 – 128: First Violin is from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang

(B1) Andante (ma con moto) – mm. 129 – 181: Viola is from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang

(A2) Adagio molto – mm. 182 – 226: Second Violin is from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang

Postludium: Adagio mm. 227 – 245: No Beethoven material used.

The lines from Beethoven’s Op. 132 are not meant to be played in a different manner than the other three voices. They are treated as organic and integral parts of the new quartet. Whether or not the audience recognizes their origin is irrelevant for the listening experience.

It is easier for me to say what this new quartet is not rather than what it is:

  • It is not an arrangement or transcription.
  • It is not a quotation.
  • It is not polystylistic.
  • It is not meant to juxtapose materials or styles.
  • It is not variations on Beethoven themes.
  • It is not a re-interpretation of Beethoven.

Perhaps audiences and performers could approach this work as a new 21st-century string quartet in which Beethoven’s structure and individual lines are faithfully recontextualized, with variables of interpretation and technique, within a new original composition.

  • • • • • • •

Beethoven wrote his Heiliger Dankgesang as an expression of gratitude for surviving a near-fatal illness. The tradition of ex-votos (“from a vow”) artworks created in gratitude and to give tribute to divine intervention of deities in personal calamities has a long history. Ex-votos can take a wide variety of forms. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony of the received help. They can be found in many cultures from those in Abydos in Ancient Egypt to Mexican folk art. Just as in ex-voto retablos, the religious aspect is present as slow sections of the Heiliger Dankgesang which are based on a choral, with its timeless hymn-like meditative nature while the faster sections in Beethoven celebrate the dance of life, renewed strength, the joys of recovery.

Beethoven lived in a time when humanity still believed in heroes and antiheroes; children stories and fairytales represented a clear division of good and evil, and words still kept some capacity not to betray their meaning at the very moment of their utterance.

I live in a different time. After the extremes of romanticism, distortions and distractions of the 20th century, and the confusion of the 21st century, my initial reaction is to question and doubt everything. Perhaps, when one is or considers himself (as it was with Beethoven) mortally ill, the gratitude addressed is not towards the future which might be too brief, but towards the past with its memories of the life lived? Perhaps such thankfulness carries the sweet sadness of acceptance? Maybe the song of gratitude is the act of letting go, of embracing the inevitable – like a return to true home, to that interconnected place of true peace, to the origins from which we are expelled for the duration of our lives? Perhaps the sense of real recovery is possible only through the full embrace of the finite aspect of our human existence? Perhaps we are only able to appreciate how precious every moment is when we are fully aware of its finite nature?

Artists tend to be superstitious; they love finding inner rhymes in life and deciphering their hidden meanings, finding still resonating overtones through the centuries. I am no exception. It was the Artemis Quartet’s wish for my new quartet to connect in some form to Beethoven for his 2020 anniversary. How and in which form this connection would take place, they left up to me. I admit that although I was pleased to collaborate once again with Artemis, initially I dreaded the thought of needing to connect the commissioned work to Beethoven. For a while, I was at a loss of how and where to begin. I knew that such a relationship or homage to Beethoven needed to feel genuine, organic, unforced, inevitable.

The concept of structuring my quartet upon Heiliger Dankgesang came during a prolonged illness; perhaps this was the reason why this particular quartet of Beethoven resonated with me and generated further ideas. The idea also occurred to me on the day of the American Thanksgiving holiday, which I only realized the next day as I was in Vienna and entirely forgot about this holiday. It added an unexpected rhyme to an already forming sequence of thoughts. I can’t help asking again – what exactly are we celebrating? Or how this holiday is viewed from the perspective of the American indigenous people? Life and death are so intertwined that only questions can remain. Is building a new and free nation justification for the destruction and rape of another culture? Are those who kill today “in the name of God” better or worse than those who kill in the name of fatherland, motherland, revolutionary idea or whichever excuse or justification is given to acts of cruelty and bloodshed? Literature, the art of words, is more direct than other art forms in reflecting and forming our understanding of our time, as well as of the times passed. After Nikolai Gogol’s work, there are no more perfectly positive heroes and when such heroes or ideas of them are imposed as in the case of the 20th century Communist Soviet Union, fascist Germany and Mao’s China, such heroes – in time – are viewed and perceived as monstrosities.

Yet, the notions of gratitude remain, they are universal, regardless of what originates the feeling of thanks. Appreciation for a life lived or life passed? Gratitude for a safe return home, in whichever form it may take, and to whichever home this return may be? Gratitude for freedom even if true freedom may be attainable only through the liberation of death? Gratitude for kindness, because kindness is universal, and acts of kindness represent humanity at its very best? Finding gratitude is especially essential not because, but in spite of the difficulties and cruelty one may be facing. It is like finding accidental beauty in the harshest surrounding – finding what to be thankful for in a world that has gone mad.

My quartet has more tragic and darkly intense undertones than Beethoven’s sublime meditation, while approaching the same themes from different times, views and with a different understanding of history. If Beethoven lived in our time, how would he approach these themes? I can only ask questions. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, I do not know why my characters (or pieces) behave the way they do – ask them, not me. Works tend to have a mind and will of their own; my role as a composer is to let them grow into what they wish to become. I repeat: what they wish, not me. What I personally wish might be entirely different. What I want is this “Neue Kraft Fühlend” (feeling of new strength as meant by Beethoven, not me); I long for the sense of peace and wellbeing, for ability to find simple joys to be thankful for; to sit in my favorite armchair with a large pile of books all around me with all the time in the world to read them. And if my quartet seems to address death more than the work on which it is based – it is what this music demanded of me, and I had no choice, but to follow its call.

Lera Auerbach

As of January 26, 2020