Every time I hear the music of Beethoven, the spirit of Christmas touches my heart. Because Beethoven is bound up with love, Beethoven is bound up with Christ. During Advent, Christians everywhere are reminded of the great testament of Love becoming incarnate. Beethoven keeps pointing us to that reality.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December 1770, probably on December 16, as he was baptized on the 17th, and it was customary at the time in the Catholic Church to baptize an infant within 24 hours of birth. Beethoven is widely regarded as one of the best classical composers, and his work is widely and instantly recognizable. I was introduced to Beethoven at a young age through my mother, who would occasionally play his piano compositions, especially the “Moonlight Sonata,” and by watching the film The Longest Day, which made use of the first four bars of the “Fifth Symphony”; they resounded in my little boy ears.
My journey to music appreciation is a long and winding, indeed turbulent, road. I sang in choir through high school and sometimes sing as a cantor at our local parish. But I certainly do not compose anything or even play any instruments. Some time ago, rummaging through old belongings, I found the old iPod I had when in high school. Shocked that it still worked, I turned it on, only to be horrified at what I used to listen to. (No need to get into that.)
In my undergraduate days, while studying and writing, I would frequently listen to soothing instrumental music softly playing in the background. When I was at Yale studying theology and Bible, I began to attend St. Mary’s parish, the church where the Knights of Columbus were founded, because it had a schola choir, organist, and performed the responsorial psalms in Latin. At the same time I began to delve more deeply into the musical writings of Sir Roger Scruton, whom I had begun reading and listening to as an undergraduate, which compelled me to venture off to England to study with him right before his death, with the grandiose delusion of writing something on Schubert, of whom I had grown fond.
The winding road to music appreciation, now that I can look back on it, undeniably began with Beethoven. I can distinctly recall the soothing and beautiful melodies of Beethoven singing from our modest and partly out-of-tune home piano. Nevertheless, there was a tranquility to the few Beethoven pieces in our piano books.
Christianity, especially Catholicism, has long maintained that beauty is one of the pathways to God. Since God is Love, beauty is also a highway to Love. And we certainly do come to love beauty when it is, in fact, beautiful. Beethoven was supported by church officials during his lifetime, especially Archduke Rudolf of Austria, who was later Cardinal-Archbishop of Olomouc. The two men had a lasting friendship from the time when Beethoven tutored Rudolf as a young boy to play piano and, growing up, Rudolf returned the favor of the love Beethoven showed him by sponsoring his work. (Lest we forget, not that long ago composers, musicians, and artists of all stripes had to find sponsors to undertake their work.)
It is, I think, providentially fitting that Beethoven was born during Advent. Advent is, for Christians, a most remarkable time of the year since it commemorates that most remarkable event in human history: God’s coming to dwell with mankind, to love and suffer with us in our human condition (and Christmas is also meant to remind us of Christ’s eventual Second Coming). The pagan philosophers, of course, found this notion ridiculous. Not only did it violate the principle of divine impassibility, it was also offensive to suggest that the high god of philosophical theory would stoop so low as to be beset by the corruptions of the body and the wild pathology of human emotion. Jews and, later, Muslims also found the notion of the High God coming to dwell on earth in human form something repugnant and contrary to God’s nature.
The criticism of Christianity’s doctrine of the incarnation highlights something manifest about other theologies: the problem of love. The incarnation, of course, is one of the high moments of Christology and theology because it is the moment when Love itself entered into the Cosmos and dwelled with men to show us the way of love, kindness, and reconciliation. God’s coming to dwell in human flesh, to take on the form of a slave, and humble Himself in death—as St. Paul says—is scandalous. It is scandalous because it shows us the totality of God’s love for us.
Beethoven, at least for me, becomes a conduit of love because in hearing Beethoven I am forever reminded of my mother, my family, and the cherished memories of growing up as a child surrounded by a family that exuded love and demanded love and excellence in all things. Nothing less than the best was demanded because love demands our best.
It is now fashionable for secularists, who have imposed their own monopoly on culture, to accuse traditional high culture of being white supremacist. So, many secular scholars of Beethoven now try to disassociate the spirit of Catholicism from his work. How sad. The reality is that Christianity moved Beethoven’s heart and mind, and thus stripping the Christian spirit of love and joy from Beethoven deprecates the nature of the composer’s work.
“Ode to Joy,” incorporated into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was written by the ostentatiously romantic philhellene Friedrich Schiller. But the music that moves “Ode to Joy” blends the Elysian paganism of Germanic philhellenism with a Christian spirit of wondrous joy and thus has the universal Christian spirit in it because of its beauty and heavenly directionality, pointing us to the wonderful things that the heavens hold.
The joy and solidarity that comes from Beethoven’s “Ninth” is owed to the composer’s Catholicism and not to Schiller’s philhellenism. After all, Beethoven even revises the opening to underscore the importance of joy in solidarity—and joy is truly and uniquely Christian whereas pleasure is truly and uniquely Greek; joy is absent in the Greek philosophies and a stumbling block to the Hellenes. Those who wish to cull the transcendental heart of music, especially in Beethoven, do so precisely because they wish to wash away the Catholicism that is intrinsic to Beethoven and his musical works.
Beethoven was surrounded by Catholicism throughout his life. He was baptized into the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith.” His mother, by all accounts, was devout. Clergymen surrounded Beethoven, helped him as he grew deaf, and generously sponsored him and his work. Members of the cloth felt a magnet of the divine in Beethoven, and the composer expressed that love to them in his works and dedications.
“Christ on the Mount of Olives,” the Mass in C, and the “Missa Solemnis” all reveal a spirit of Catholicism in Beethoven. The musical movements and lyrics to Beethoven’s more explicitly Catholic and religious compositions reveal a man who believed in the agony and suffering of Christ (as in “Christ on the Mount of Olives”), His death, resurrection, and the hope therein (as in the Mass in C), and love for the Blessed Mother (through the invocation to her in the “Missa Solemnis”). This is not to be rationalized away as mere ponying up to his patrons and a still religious Austro-German society, as has become fashionable over the last century of Beethoven commentary.
Even Beethoven’s non-religious works show the traces of a very deep spiritual sentiment. “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only proper opera, includes the famous “Prisoners’ Chorus.” Atheists, Deists, and other non-Christians of the day had not the concern for the “least of these” as did Christians. The aspiration for freedom and dignity is not colored in banal Enlightenment theories but the deep theological reality of imago Dei. Lest we forget the words that accompany this moving song of the prisoners: “Oh what joy, in the open air…We shall with all our faith. Trust in the help of God! Hope whispers softly in my ears!” The chorus, heard by those with ears to hear, will immediately recognize the biblical allusions that move the prisoners to sing. Only the willfully deaf cannot detect the spirit of Christianity in Beethoven’s works. Beethoven may have been deaf, but he always heard the voice of God.
Furthermore, Beethoven’s own letters and testimonies signify a deeply religious and spiritually aware composer. While he may have been comparatively reticent regarding his religious views when compared to Bach or Mozart, Beethoven’s letters and writings indeed express his religious sentiments. His Heiligenstadt Testament is filled with the most profound of Catholic sensibilities: “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.” In a letter to Rudolf, Beethoven beautifully wrote, “Nothing higher exists than to approach God.” These are not the words of a Janus-faced fraud but a sincere Catholic who is steeped in the faith.
The beauty of Beethoven also points us to something beyond the man known as Beethoven. The road of beauty is the highway to God, and there was nothing more beautiful, as the Church Fathers routinely wrote, than God coming in the form of a babe, then man, to help procure our salvation. Because Beethoven can be—and is—a highway to God, the enemies of God ferociously attempt to destroy that pathway every way they can.
If beauty will save the world it must be qualified that love will save the world. Because in beauty we find love. In finding beauty and the love that governs it, we are always directed to the Christ who came into our lives and taught us how to love. St. Augustine said that we often first come to know God (who is Love) through the love of others and the love that others show us.
Every time I hear Beethoven, the spirit of Christmas and touches my heart. Because Beethoven is bound up with love, Beethoven is bound up with Christ. During Advent, Christians everywhere are reminded of the great testament of Love becoming incarnate. Beethoven keeps pointing us to that reality, and, for me, always reminds me of the love that has graced my own life. In hearing his music and the profound spirit of solidarity, joy, and beauty emanating from his Catholic soul, I reminded not only of the good things the heavens hold, but also of the love a mother had (and still has) for a son.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The featured image is “Beethovens Apotheose” (1900), by Eduard Majsch (1841-1904), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.