Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart form the great trinity of Western classical composers. Of the three, it is Beethoven whose religious beliefs have proven the most elusive. We know all about the devout Lutheranism of Bach, who wrote his music “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul”; and Mozart was a practicing Catholic, as his letters make clear. Beethoven, by contrast, was reticent about expressing his religious convictions. He is often portrayed as a child of the secular-humanist Enlightenment—a freethinking individualist whose beliefs were Deistic in nature and who had little need for church or creed. Yet Beethoven was baptized and raised a Catholic, from a Rhineland Catholic family that had emigrated from Flanders two generations before. What precise ties did this musical giant—the composer of one of the greatest Catholic Masses of all time—have with the Catholicism of his birth?
Beethoven’s letters and notebooks give testimony to his strong belief in a personal God. One of his favorite books was a work by a Lutheran pastor called Reflections on the Works of God and His Providence Throughout All Nature, an example of the early-Romantic love of the natural world (often incorrectly labeled “pantheism”) which fed into such Beethoven works as the Pastoral Symphony. Other Beethoven quotations about God—particularly those written during the agonizing onset of his deafness—emphasize his nearness and his understanding of suffering, in language that often recalls the Psalms. Christ is invoked as a suffering fellow-man (if not as Son of God). Beethoven also frequently wrote religious inscriptions and titles on his compositions: “Grateful thanks to the Almighty after the storm,” “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity.”
Beethoven’s mother was described as devout, and the composer started his musical life at the age of ten playing the organ at early morning Masses in Bonn. Morally, Beethoven was very upright, even “puritanical” according to some writers. Nonetheless, it is not clear that the adult Beethoven went to Mass regularly or practiced any Catholic devotions (when he became guardian to his nephew Karl, he saw to it that the boy went regularly to the sacraments). In mid-life Beethoven appears to have developed an interest in Hinduism and other eastern religions, quoting their religious texts in his notebooks. The quotations emphasize the transcendence and pure essence of God and are, in fact, not far from the doctrines of the Old Testament.
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It’s worth mentioning that one of the specialists to whom Beethoven went to treat his deafness was a Catholic priest, a Pater Weiss, who had gained a reputation in Vienna as a sort of wonder worker with the deaf.
Throughout his career Beethoven desired to make a personal imprint upon the field of sacred music. While it’s true that some of his choral pieces (such as the Ninth Symphony) suggest the Deistic religiosity of the Enlightenment, he also wrote works that belong firmly to the orthodox Christian and Catholic tradition. First came the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803), unusual among Passion pieces in that it concentrates on the Agony in the Garden instead of the Crucifixion. In this work, Christ is cast as a heroic tenor and the psychology of his “Agony” is exploited in both text and music. In 1807 came the radiant Mass in C major, a work of reassurance and hope. A commissioned oratorio, The Triumph of the Cross, unfortunately did not come to fruition, although Beethoven kept promising it for years. Neither Christ nor the Mass are widely performed today—a pity, since they are both fine works that document Beethoven’s continuing quest for a distinctive sacred style.
The quest was fulfilled in 1824 with the Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass), which Beethoven called the “crown of my life’s work.” It was written to celebrate the installation as archbishop of Beethoven’s patron and close friend, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. In preparing to write it, Beethoven suddenly became interested in old religious music, studied Palestrina, the church modes and liturgical music treatises from centuries before. He also studied the Latin texts of the Mass so as to create music that closely expressed the essence of the words. Beethoven was trying to establish a connection with the past: “In the old church modes the devotion is divine … and [may] God let me express it someday.” The resulting Mass was saturated with Catholic tradition, rich with musical-religious symbolism and references to the shape of the rite itself. To cite just a few some examples: fluttering flute bird-calls representing the Holy Spirit, a hovering violin suggesting Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic altar, and imitations of organ preluding during the Eucharistic rite.
The Missa exemplifies Beethoven’s “late style.” Its gigantic dimensions—in terms of length, difficulty, and size of performing forces—preclude actual liturgical use; like the Mass in C major, it is intended for the concert hall rather than the church. Now totally deaf, Beethoven heard his music only in his head, and what he heard was often mystical, cosmic, boundary-pushing—music that sounds ancient and modern at the same time. The Missa Solemnis is one of the greatest Catholic Masses and one of the most powerful religious compositions of all time, in a class with Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the best of Haydn and Mozart.
Beethoven had plans to write another Mass after the Missa Solemnis, but it didn’t come to pass. In March 1827, racked by a congeries of illnesses, he lay at the point of death. On the suggestion of his doctor, Beethoven consented to being given last rites by a priest; afterwards, the composer exclaimed: “I thank you, ghostly sir! You have brought me comfort!” That the priest allowed a Catholic burial and high requiem Mass for Beethoven would seem to indicate that he thought Beethoven died a believer.
But did he indeed? Did Beethoven die in union with the Church? We can’t know for certain, but there are hints that Beethoven, while firmly committed to “enlightened” values, came eventually to realize their limitations and strove to go beyond them. His violent retraction of the dedication of his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 signaled a disillusionment with secular messianism. And his sacred music, in particular the Missa Solemnis, reached backwards to the Catholic past in many ways.
Nonetheless, some authors have attempted to “de-Catholicize” the Missa Solemnis, as if Beethoven couldn’t possibly have believed in the words he was setting. It is argued that he wrote the work to honor Archduke Rudolph; that he desired to prove himself in the hallowed form of the Mass, as many great composers before him had done; and that he employed the Catholic Mass as a peg on which to hang his personal beliefs, broadening it into Deist universalism. Author Jan Swafford falls into this pattern of thinking in his recent Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, in spite of his brilliant analysis of the Missa. He informs us that “In the end the Missa Solemnis is Beethoven’s personal faith as an individual reaching toward God, not an assertion of the credos and dogmas of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church…. He created a mass that subsumed the doctrines and the physical rite of the church … but he turns them into something both personal and universal …. person to person, without priests.” The possibility that Beethoven’s Mass is exactly what it proclaims itself to be—a statement of faith in Christ and the Church—or that in writing it Beethoven may have been reaching back to the original universalism of Catholicism, is unthinkable!
With greater perception, the Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Missa a “mighty profession of faith in a personal God by one of the greatest geniuses of all times, who composed it in the midst of the growing doubt and impending moral and spiritual disintegration of his age.” That word “disintegration” was well chosen. For all its positive points, the Enlightenment signaled the beginning of the Humpty-Dumpty fragmentation in Western thought—God without Christ, Christ without the Cross. The Missa Solemnis offers a vision of unity in the old faith. Whether or not he died a Catholic—and at least one author believes he “remained [a Catholic] all his life”—Beethoven left Catholicism one of its most powerful musical testaments.
In the total deafness of his last years, Beethoven depended on notebooks (the famous “conversation books”) to communicate with others. In many cases, only one side of the conversation has survived. On one occasion, it seems Beethoven was discussing the Resurrection with his friend Karl Peters. We don’t know what question Beethoven asked, but Peters’ reply sums up the contemporary crisis of faith and the hope of overcoming it: “You will arise with me from the dead—because you must. Religion remains constant, only Man is changeable.”