This was the second of the three quartets Beethoven completed to satisfy the commission from Prince Nikolai Golitzin. No. 12, Opus 127 (1823-1824), was the first to be finished, followed by this A minor effort, with the Thirteenth (1826) coming last. The work carries the nickname "Heiliger Dankgesang" because of the note written in the score (actually in French) by Beethoven that pertains to the third movement.
From this note, as well as from the time of the work's composition, one can safely deduce that the crisis one clearly hears in the music is related to the lengthy illness Beethoven suffered from April 1825 until August of that year. The composer makes no attempt to depict his feelings during the illness; rather, he reflects on them and gives thanks in this score for his recovery, for the vanquishing of the pain and suffering that he must surely have felt were symptoms of a life-threatening illness.
The first movement, marked Assai sostenuto, Allegro, has an odd but ingenious structure: Beethoven presents a four-note motif that proves to be the central force throughout, developing it in between three separate expositions. There are two main theme groups, the first of which apparently represents the composer's physical suffering, the latter his sense of hope to overcome it. These subjects transform brilliantly as the movement progresses, with the theme of suffering finally appearing as a joyous hymn at the close.
The second movement is a Scherzo marked Allegro ma non tanto. While the mood of the music here is happy, its slightly restrained character suggests the recovering composer is a bit leery about venturing into too much activity. The third movement, marked Molto adagio, is the work's emotional centerpiece. A slow, hymn-like theme of religious character dominates the proceedings, appearing in different guises throughout, in the end arriving at its definitive, celestial version. The form of this movement is unusual, consisting of five sections and progressing from depictions of the sick composer's hopes, to his feelings of recovery and returning strength, and finally to his recovery and thankfulness to God.
The fourth movement is comprised of a short march, marked Assai vivace. In certain ways, this is a rather puzzling chapter in the overall scheme of the music, the slightly martial nature of the theme seeming out of focus with the rest of the work. Yet, the music here serves as an effective contrast to the preceding movement, as if to suggest a return from the heavens back to the reality of earth.
The finale is a Rondo marked Allegro appassionato. There is nothing innovative in the form here, Beethoven apparently content to suggest that a return to routine can bring sufficient rewards for his purposes, as it may symbolize that a return to health can make one appreciate the simple things in life. Here the mood is joyous throughout and full of color and sunshine. The composer clearly conveys that the crisis is behind him, that the music does not celebrate triumph here, but rather expresses joy and thankfulness. This work was first published in Paris and Berlin in 1827 and was dedicated to Prince Nikolai Golitzin.