My knowledge of classical music is not profound, though I listen to it quite often. I was raised on a diet of popular music, like most people are in America, and I still retain my love for Classic Rock to this day. My tastes have broadened to include jazz and bluegrass, though these are secondary loves.
Closer to the heart is the music of the Church. Until the lockdowns of 2020 destroyed them, I was for many years part of several different choirs that performed both chant and polyphony. There is nothing quite like singing a piece by Palestrina, Victoria, or Byrd and hearing the voices blend together from within the choir. It truly feels like the Holy Spirit pulsing through the harmony of voices. I wish that every devout Catholic could have that experience of singing in such a setting. It is a marvelous gift, and I am most grateful for having done so.
But, as much as I love the music of the Church, the piece of music that moves me the most is not actually among its vast and wonderful repertoire, though many come close. Music naturally stirs my emotions, like most people; but only one piece of music ever moves me to tears, and that pretty much every time I listen to it. That is the middle section of a late string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven, his A minor quartet. If there is one piece of classical music every Catholic should learn to appreciate, I think it would be this one.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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That is because, more than any other piece of music made for ostensibly “secular” purposes I can think of, it deserves to be called “holy.” Literally, this is what Beethoven titled that section of his quartet: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an der Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart (“a Holy Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Godhead from a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode”). Early sketches of the piece originally called for four movements, but a severe illness interrupted Beethoven’s work. Upon his recovery, he composed a middle movement, the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” in gratitude for his recovery.
Beethoven was raised Catholic, but he did not practice what we would call an orthodox faith. Beethoven never attended Mass in his adult life, despite living most of it in Vienna, a Catholic city. Despite this, one of Beethoven’s best friends was an archbishop; and on his deathbed, he received Last Rites. Beethoven’s titanic sense of individuality and of his own importance—he once explained to a disappointed princely patron, whose commission he refused, that “there were many princes in the world but only one Beethoven”—prevented him from being a conventionally devout believer.
But perhaps more importantly, Catholicism affected his music in fairly direct ways. He drew upon his knowledge of Church music for his Choral Fantasia in C Minor (and he drew upon that Fantasia for his Ninth Symphony). He also composed a few sacred works: an oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives; as well as two settings of the Mass, including his great Missa Solemnis, for which he conducted intense research into the Latin of the Mass. But he also drew upon this legacy for his Holy Hymn.
The “Lydian Mode” of the title refers to one of the ancient “modes,” pre-modern musical scales whose origins go back to ancient Greece but whose use was transformed by the Church during the Middle Ages in what we call today “Gregorian Chant.” The “Lydian” mode was a scale often used in hymnody, especially during the Renaissance. Beethoven, the modern musical revolutionary, is in this piece reaching back to the past, to express something deeper in his music.
The main theme of the movement is basically a hymn tune, reminiscent of a Bach chorale, but you would not notice this unless the tune were sped up tremendously. That is because Beethoven requires it to be played at such a glacially slow pace that you don’t notice it. In fact, the opening section is so slow and meditative that it hardly appears to be moving at all; there is no dissonance, no tension in it, and the effect is mystical and otherworldly.
Beethoven will repeat this theme twice more throughout the piece, broken up by two sections marked “Feeling New Strength,” a reference to his recovery from illness. In those movements, he abandons his ancient hymn tune for modern music, producing a soaring, ecstatic, and delightful contrast with the other sections. As the movement progresses, Beethoven introduces a few dissonant notes into the main theme the second time around, and in the final section he begins stripping the theme note by note, until it ends on the same note with which the piece began, an F, fading into a majestic silence. You can get a sense of how the piece works (and hear it played) in this video.
It is difficult for me to explain exactly why this piece of music means so much to me. Part of it is Beethoven’s sense of gratitude to God, which pours through every line of the piece. But being someone who cares for orthodoxy a great deal, it is not an obviously “holy” work. The “Holy Hymn” is not explicitly Christian; Beethoven dedicated it to “the Godhead,” a suitably ecumenical sounding word for someone who believed deeply in God and His presence in the world but whose religious beliefs are otherwise opaque. It is difficult for me to explain exactly why this piece of music means so much to me. Part of it is Beethoven’s sense of gratitude to God, which pours through every line of the piece. Tweet This
Despite all that, I am convinced there is something fundamentally Christian, even Catholic, about his “Holy Hymn of Thanksgiving.” Beethoven, the utterly unique individual, felt helpless in his illness and thought himself on the point of death. The Heiliger Dankgesang captures something that much of his late chamber music does. Those later works are suffused with an intimacy, even a humility, quite absent from his more flamboyant orchestral works such as the Ninth Symphony. What you hear in the “Holy Hymn” is the vulnerability of Beethoven before God, in the weakness and frailty of human flesh.
And this is why I find it to be so revealing of Christ. There is a concept in physics called “supersymmetry” that tries to explain how subatomic particles that appear to be different entities are actually different facets of the same particle. Beneath the apparent disunity and conflict of the physical world, a deeper unity can be found.
To me, this speaks of the Christian story: that despite sin, death, decay, pain, suffering—all the manifold evil of this world—a greater harmony, greater beauty and love, exists. Christ, who entered into this evil, came to show us that not even death could destroy this greater unity with God the Father, the unity that is the eternal love of the Holy Trinity.
For me, Beethoven somehow captured this “supersymmetry” of Christ in music with his “Holy Hymn.” This is not so far-fetched as it might seem; after all, recovery from illness is a type of resurrection, something Beethoven must have known. The Heiliger Dankgesang sounds like Beethoven investigating a piece of Church music as if investigating the truth of Christianity. Slowing his hymn tune so he could take it apart and inspect it, he wanted to see for himself if the promise of Christ was really true, that there is a deeper meaning to illness and suffering, that there is something rather than nothing, that there is life beyond death.
I think, in the end, Beethoven found he did believe in that promise, and that is why he was able to pour out his gratitude to God in the most sublime music imaginable. And all of us, Catholic or not, should be grateful that such a genius left us this moving tribute to God Almighty.
[Image: Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler]