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Benjamin IvryMay 29, 2020

As the music-loving world celebrates this year the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), every detail of his life has been scoured and studied. But there is one question that has yet to be answered: To what degree was Beethoven inspired by Catholicism?

Early biographers confirm that Beethoven was baptized and brought up in a German Catholic family originally from Flanders. Yet they also assert that he became a deist, who rejected revelation as a source of religious knowledge, believing that reason and observation of the natural world were enough to establish the existence of a Supreme Being or creator of the universe.

Early biographers confirm that Beethoven was baptized and brought up in a German Catholic family. Yet they also assert that he became a deist.

However, he wrote two Masses, an early “Mass in C” (1807) and the imposing “Missa Solemnis” (1824), as well as an oratorio, “Christ on the Mount of Olives” (1803), about the Agony in the Garden, when Jesus prayed late at night in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, as three disciples whom he had asked to pray with him slept nearby.

Musicologists also look to six songs by Beethoven, set to poems by the German moral philosopher Christian Gellert, as indicators of the composer’s piety. Yet the biographical facts appear to contradict some of these assumptions.

Reading for Evidence

Although much of the 1840 account of Beethoven’s life by his former secretary, Anton Schindler, has been disputed, certain passages ring true. Noting that his employer was “brought up in the Catholic religion,” Schindler adds the comment: “It was one of [Beethoven’s] peculiarities that he never spoke on religious topics or concerning the dogmas of the various Christian churches in order to give his opinion about them. It may be said with considerable certainty, however, that his religious views rested less upon the creed of the church, than that they had their origin in deism.”

Alexander Thayer, the American author of the first scholarly biography of Beethoven, noted that readers who dissent from Schindler’s view because Beethoven wrote religious works might consider whether the “words of the Mass were simply a text on which he could lavish all the resources of his art in the expression of his religious feelings.”

Thayer added that he agreed with Schindler if what the earlier writer meant by deism was that Beethoven “rejected the Trinitarian dogma; that the Deity of his faith is a personal God, a universal Father, to whom his human children may hopefully appeal for mercy in time of temptation, for aid in time of need, for consolation in time of sorrow.”

Some musicologists have been anxious to paint a more positive portrait, underlining that Beethoven was adamant that his nephew, Karl, get a traditional Catholic education.

No one ever claimed that Beethoven attended church services, and if he denied the Holy Trinity, how Catholic could he have been? Some musicologists have been anxious to paint a more positive portrait, underlining that Beethoven was adamant that his nephew, Karl, get a traditional Catholic education, although recommending for others what one is loath to do oneself is a familiar human habit.

Undeniably, some people close to Beethoven exchanged religious ideas with him, such as the Bavarian Catholic theologian Johann Michael Sailer (1751-1832), a leading figure of the German Catholic Enlightenment. The composer’s patron, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788–1831), a clergyman and noble, would be consecrated archbishop of Olomouc in 1819 and became a cardinal the same year.

Beethoven lived with Catholicism around him, but what about his inner inspiration and beliefs? For a solution, it is best to experience how Beethoven’s works sound.

Beethoven lived with Catholicism around him, but what about his inner inspiration and beliefs? Such personal matters, as everyone knows, are an evolving issue in each person, and difficult enough to pinpoint in people we know personally, let alone in someone born 250 years ago.

For a solution, it is best to experience how Beethoven’s works sound, and also look at what may occur if we overdo the natural desire to see Beethoven proven a believer.

Listening for Evidence

“Christ on the Mount of Olives” (1803) is the only oratorio Beethoven composed. He claimed to have dashed it off in a mere two weeks. Beethoven was known for agonizing over compositions for years, so why would this one have been done so precipitously?

The musicologist Paul Henry Lang pointed out in The Musical Quarterly in October 1964 that “Christ on the Mount of Olives” is not really an oratorio, after all, but more like an opera, the way they were written circa 1800. Beethoven’s Jesus is a tenor (cue all the tenor jokes that anyone who has sung in a choir must know); an angel or seraph is a soprano; and Saint Peter is a bass.

Paul Henry Lang believed that “Christ on the Mount of Olives” was best presented as opera rather than sacred music.

Traditionally, in Bach’s oratorios and many others, the so-called Vox Christi, or setting of Jesus’ words in a vocal work, is sung by a bass voice. That Beethoven chose a tenor, even a somewhat heroic tenor, may be one reason why “Christ on the Mount of Olives” has been classified by some listeners—alongside “Wellington’s Victory,” a bit of orchestral fustian written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington's victory over Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813—as one of the composer’s rare duds.

Paul Henry Lang believed that “Christ on the Mount of Olives” was best presented as energetic, highly dramatic opera rather than lofty sacred music. A recording conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt contains the required percussive gusto.

Like “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” the Gellert songs are relatively minor works by Beethoven that depend much on the quality of their interpretations. Some recordings are stern and lumbering in tone, which may have led Paul Carus, a German-American expert in comparative religion, to call them “Protestant in tone and Protestant in the austerity of their devotion.” In “The Monist of January 1912,” Carus offered a translation of one of the edifying songs, entitled “Love Thy Neighbor”:

If one shall say, “I love the Lord,”

While yet his brother hating,

With mockers he shall reap reward,

God’s truth abominating;

For God is love, and wishes me

With all on loving terms to be.

To experience spirituality beyond the overtly didactic message, it is best to hear intelligence and elegance emanating from the recorded voice of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, artfully accompanied by the pianist Hartmut Höll. Or to lighten the dour atmosphere, a higher, yet ecclesiastical-sounding voice on record, that of German countertenor Jochen Kowalski accompanied by Shelley Katz, is revelatory.

Beethoven’s bright, vigorously inspiring “Mass in C” retains its verve, possibly because of what The Musical Times called in a March 1858 overview, “strangeness and eccentricity…many surprises of the ear, abrupt modulations and uncommon phrases.”

Beethoven wrote the “Mass in C” on commission from Nikolaus II, Prince Esterházy, and it premiered in his private chapel. Unlike the listener in 1858, we are now fully accustomed to the Beethovenian style, and can relish dashing renditions led by a young Colin Davis (and Davis again in his later years). In another recording by George Guest with the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, boys’ voices add a different sound texture. The Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons provides further insight into this work from the time after Beethoven’s deafness began.

By 1801, Beethoven is reported to have lost much of his hearing. Of course, Beethoven’s deafness is an emblematic fact about him, like Van Gogh’s ear, known to millions who are aware of little else about the subject. It remains true that works written after 1816, when he was completely deaf, are of a psychical complexity that make them inexhaustible challenges for the finest musicians, what the pianist Artur Schnabel called “music better than can be played.”

“If the ‘Missa Solemnis’ in a sense transcends the Catholic liturgy, it is nevertheless fundamentally Catholic and liturgical.”

This surely can be said of the powerful “Missa Solemnis,” originally intended as a pontifical high Mass to celebrate the enthronement of Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph as archbishop of Olomouc in Moravia in 1819. Quite typically, Beethoven missed the deadline, having a translation made of the Latin text of the Mass for his painstaking personal study. The work was completed in 1823.

The resulting complex, sometimes contradictory work is stunning in its power. In The Musical Times of December 1970, Alec Robertson suggested: “From the liturgical and perhaps the aesthetic points of view, the eruption of the troubled world into the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ of the ‘Agnus Dei’ is, according to some critics, a disaster. The agitated recitatives of the alto and tenor soloists are purely operatic.”

Robertson concludes: “If the ‘Missa Solemnis’ in a sense transcends the Catholic liturgy, it is nevertheless fundamentally Catholic and liturgical; its regular performance in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, shows that it is so recognized by ecclesiastical authority…. [T]he Missa Solemnis’ is above all a personal and searching confession of faith, a wrestling as of a Jacob for the angel’s blessing as well as a triumphant hymn to the power and might of a loving God.”

To bring out such qualities of conflict and harmony, conductors of the modern era like Philippe Herreweghe, a trained psychiatrist, Bernard Haitink, a master of refined equilibrium, and the Russian Rudolf Barshai, a font of wisdom and emotion, are ideal. Among historic conductors, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber all captured the clash between turmoil and exaltation, the dramatic Beethovenian struggle that resolves itself in a humanistic message of worship.

Frenetic French Boosters

Finally, let us address the question of what may happen if we impose upon Beethoven standard Catholic beliefs that may not have been his. This was already done by Neo-Catholicism, an intellectual movement born in the wake of the French Revolution.

The Provence-born musicologist Joseph d’Ortigue (1802-1866) was a specialist in liturgical music and an ultramontane, advocating supreme papal authority in matters of faith and discipline. D’Ortigue saw in Beethoven’s late works the power of sacred revelation. He wrote, “Simultaneously poet, historian, and prophet, in his orchestral writing Beethoven makes us hear angels’ choirs, the organ’s register and sounds of nature.”

Following the approach of Abbé de Lamennais (1782-1854), the French Catholic priest and philosopher, d’Ortigue emphasized the metaphysical aspects of even those Beethoven works that were not explicitly about religious subjects, such as the late quartets or “Ninth Symphony.” This fervent sanctification of Beethoven reached its height in the 1835 novella Beethoven’s Visionby Jeanette Lozaouïs.

Joseph d’Ortigue saw in Beethoven’s late works the power of sacred revelation.

In this fictional fantasia, St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, kidnaps Beethoven for three days before his death, taking him to the Berliner Singakademie, a choral society founded in Berlin in 1791 on the model of the London Academy of Ancient Music. Saint Cecilia’s purpose is to have Beethoven listen to his “most brilliant symphony” in this setting. Conquering his longtime struggle with deafness, the composer is at first regaled by the chorus “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s “Messiah,” likely in Mozart’s German-language arrangement of that work.

Typical of the exalted tone of the novella, the chorister’s costumes are described as if prefiguring the stage sets of Busby Berkeley screen musicals of the 1930s, with male singers wearing white interspersed with female singers in black, looking like a piano keyboard. As the performance continues, Beethoven’s chair becomes a throne and the chorus undergoes multiple costume changes, from biblical times to the present day.

Beethoven steps onto a balcony and sees a ladder reaching to heaven. St. Cecilia explains that the ladder signifies that unlike “mere mortals who arrogantly deny anything beyond their narrow sphere,” after an apotheosis, Beethoven will become a celestial musician.

Who created this portrait of Beethoven as prophet of the Annunciation, staunchly contradicting those who dismissed him as a deist? Jeanette Lozaouïs was the pen name of Jeannette Goldsticker, a German woman born in Breslau (today’s Wroclaw, Poland), a Paris resident. It is possible that she was a Catholic convert from Judaism.

Lozaouïs’s account, although clearly over the top, is an indication of how far unfettered appropriation of the Catholic posterity of Ludwig van Beethoven can go. On his 250th birthday, it helps to remember the old maxim that creative geniuses are usually difficult to categorize neatly, as their originality prevents them from conforming with commonly held definitions and beliefs.

Recommended listening

Christ on the Mount of Olives

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor) 

Gellert Lieder

Jochen Kowalski (countertenor)

Shelley Katz (piano)

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Hartmut Höll (piano)

Beethoven Mass in C

Colin Davis (conductor) 

George Guest (conductor)

Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Missa Solemnis 

Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Rudolf Barshai (conductor)

Arturo Toscanini (conductor)

Bruno Walter (conductor)

Otto Klemperer (conductor)

Erich Kleiber (conductor)

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