Beethoven’s symphonies have come to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music. The distinguished art historian Alessandra Comini described Beethoven’s music as having “revelatory dimensions”. The composer himself described his work as a divine art, and he regarded his symphonies as not merely products of high craftsmanship, but expressions of a moral vision – a deeply rooted belief that great music can move the world.
The composer saw his life and work as a mission and a vocation. The modern, and now postmodern, world with all its pessimism and scepticism, has offered no more convincing explanation for Beethoven’s greatness. And it is that same modern and postmodern world which has been engaged in a curious attempt to de-Catholicise Beethoven, even in his most religious works such as the Missa Solemnis.
The spin is that it should be seen as a work of generalised spiritual feeling rather than that of a Catholic composer responding to the mysteries of faith. It’s not just with Beethoven that we see this at work: from Mozart’s Requiem to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, commentators fall over themselves to write the Catholic dimension out of any serious reflection and consideration.
Would that be the same de-Catholicised Beethoven who wrote in his Heiligenstadt Testament: “Almighty God, you look down onto my innermost soul and into my heart and you know that it is filled with love for humanity and a desire to do good?” Or of whom his closest friend Anton Schindler insisted that his “entire life is proof that he was truly religious at heart?” The same unreligious Beethoven who wrote to a friend: “I must live by myself. I know, however, that God is nearer to me than others. I go without fear to him: I have constantly recognised and understood Him?” Or wrote to the Grand Duke Rudolf “Nothing higher exists than to approach God … and to extend His glory among humanity?”
He stood on the side of the poor and oppressed when he took a preferential option for them in his Prisoners’ Chorus in Fidelio; he gave expression to the embrace of human solidarity in the presence of a loving God in his Schiller setting in the 9th Symphony. The Left prefer to associate Beethoven with politics – their politics. But here he was confused: one moment he was dedicating music to Napoleon, the next he was celebrating his defeat at the hands of the British Army and Wellington at Waterloo.
He was certainly a barometer of his age – but responded in strange and unexpected ways. There is an extraordinary but brief moment in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis where the Lamb of God overcomes the terrors of contemporary war and revolution. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis – Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
In many musical settings of this Mass movement a composer will attempt to invoke solace and peace. But in the Missa Solemnis the world breaks in – the ontology of violence which seeks to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven, the ideology of ever-improving human society, whether we want it or not, invades this sacred text, attempting to sweep the loving God aside, attempting to take control imperially, and to become the new Spirit of the Age.
In this tread of military drums and trumpets, the usurper is the revolutionary clamour of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that sought to bring the merciful Lamb of God to its knees and lead it to the slaughterhouse. The voices respond anxiously, fearfully – dona nobis pacem – but the
defiance is there: the counter-ontology is announced and expressed in Beethoven’s transformation of the sounds of violence into the glorious and healing mercy of God.
This is a signal from musical history that every time the Lamb of God is led to the next slaughterhouse, whether it be in pogrom, gulag, concentration camp or the constant redefining of human worth and nature, there is an answer, and a way of fighting back – a way of remembering who we are and that we are indeed loved by a merciful God.
Beethoven was an extraordinary seismograph of political ethics and religion. He was inspired by resistance to despots, as well as moral ideals in human behaviour. In his opera Fidelio he celebrates married love, freedom from slavery and the defeat of tyrants. To the Catholic, these are all interconnected; to the modern sceptic they are a baffling mish-mash of the unrelated and the random. Tyrants can only be defeated by brave resistance, and tyrants must never be flattered. The Eroica symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon; when he declared himself Emperor, the scales fell from Beethoven’s eyes and he erased Napoleon’s name from the score.
Many talk of Beethoven’s search for justice in these works, but it is tempered with a profound knowledge of divine mercy — expressed with a believer’s insight and vision in his Missa Solemnis, one of the most deeply Catholic works ever written.
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and conductor
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