03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beethoven's "Hymn of Thanksgiving": The Greatest Piece of Music Ever Written?

To give us some perspective on this day: Beethoven in 1825, very late in his life, wrote the third movement, molto adagio, of his string quartet opus 132, offering thanks for being alive, despite having gone completely deaf, the worst possible fate for a composer and musician.

Music lovers around the world know it as "the Heiliger Dankesang." Beethoven's full description on the original score is: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart or: "Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode."

The more sprightly portions of the hymn he labeled "Feeling new strength." Indeed, he had recently survived a near-fatal illness. He would pass away two years later after completing the last of his string quartets, which many believe form the summit of Western music.

Next week in New York City I'll be attending at Lincoln Center a performance of it along with a reading (by a top British actor) of another masterpiece it inspired: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Next week in NYC I'll be attending a performance of it along with a reading of another masterpiece it inspired: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Eliot wrote to Stephen Spender: "I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.'

On a perhaps more prosaic level, it had a featured spot in the recent film The Soloist and at the climax of Copying Beethoven .

As for it being Beethoven's greatest piece: certainly one can mention piano sonata no. 32, piano concerto no. 4, the Ninth Symphony, and one or two others, all written when he was mostly, or totally, deaf.

You can hear the third movement in two parts, totaling 17 minutes, at YouTube, or watch he final scene of Copying Beethoven via this link..

Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. He is writing a book about his life in rock 'n roll--and how he eventually came to Beethoven. He can be reached at:

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