5 min read

Faith in Beethoven

Why did Beethoven, the hero of humanism, write music for a mass? Musicologist Daniel Chua explores the maestro’s faith.

Daniel KL Chua is a musicologist and Professor and Chair of music at the University of Hong Kong. He writes on music, particularly Beethoven, and the intersection between music, philosophy and theology. 

Agrand statue of Beethoven as a classical hero seats him on a throne on a dias.
Max Klinger’s Beethoven monument.

Bach’s theological credentials are impeccable, as Jeremy Begbie wrote about previously for Seen & Unseen. But Beethoven’s? Not really. In fact, not at all. Most scholars on Beethoven see him as a secularizing force. If Bach represent the summit of theological expression in western music history, then Beethoven is the poster boy of the Enlightenment progress. He spells the end of sacred music. In the narrative of music history, Beethoven is the catalyst for a new secular epoch. After Beethoven, music is no longer about God but humanity; sacred music drops out from the historical narrative as something irrelevant or even regressive to the progress of modernity.  

But it is not just any Beethoven who wields this secularising power. It is a very particular Beethoven, more myth than man. This is Beethoven as Promethean hero. He overcomes his deafness by defiance, grabbing fate by the throat as it knocks loudly in the opening bars of the Fifth symphony - da-da-da-daaaa! - and triumphing over its C-minor threat in a glorious blaze of C major in the finale.  The symphony is a musical model of human self-determination. It projects Beethoven as a revolutionary artist living in revolutionary times, channelling the anticlerical and antimonarchist fervour of the French Revolution in musical form. His story is one of freedom and autonomy; and his music is made in his image, free from servitude to church and court, and free to be itself.  

This Promethean image precludes Beethoven from being a sacred composer. It is not that he isn’t a sacred composer; rather, he can’t be one in this historical narrative. In fact, Beethoven stands as a rival to the sacred, because by the beginning of the 20th Century, artists such as Max Klinger were building shrines to the composer: Beethoven is the high priest of an art religion. 

The Beethoven monument

A statue of a seat hero, Beethoven, sits on a raised dais in a purpsoe built rom
Max Klinger’s Beethoven monument.

The Vienna Secession’s fourteenth exhibition in 1902 was a shrine dedicated to Beethoven with Max Klinger ‘s monument as the altar. 

But there is a problem. Beethoven wrote sacred music. Not much, admittedly, but enough, including what he declared to be his ‘greatest work’ – the Missa Solemnis. So in order to uphold a more secular Beethoven, scholars have had to explain away his sacred music as inconsequential and his religious beliefs as unorthodox or non-existent. They tie themselves up in knots trying to solve the problem, especially with regard to Beethoven’s magnum opus. Although there is nothing theologically unorthodox in the Missa Solemnis, somehow the mass has to be theologically unorthodox for these commentators: at best it is a mass for deist, but it is mostly a mass about humanity. The liturgical bits can be dismissed, they claim, as something that stifles what is truly Beethovenian; instead, to grasp its meaning, you have to listen to the mass as if it where a symphony resonant with tones of human freedom and autonomy. It is almost as if Beethoven wrote the mass against his will. In one recent biography, the chapter on the Missa Solemnis opens with the incredulous question: “Why did Beethoven write a mass?” 

Why not? The problem is not Beethoven’s (obviously) but the biographer’s belief in a history that sits uncomfortably with the composer. Yes, Beethoven was a revolutionary in the times of revolution. Yes, he was born in the Age of Enlightenment, and even declared ‘freedom and progress’ as the main purpose of art. But that does not make him French; he did not step foot in France, and despite the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution, what Enlightenment meant in Bonn where Beethoven was born and in Vienna where he died, could not be anticlerical or antimonarchist because these cities were under the rule of Enlightened despots who by definition had both kingly and ecclesiastic functions.  In other words, Beethoven was a child of a religious Enlightenment. This means that his innovative and radical works were not composed against the sacred but were inspired by it. This is not to say that there is no truth in a Promethean view of Beethoven or that there is no conflict in his music during this tumultuous period in Europe, but it does imply that Beethoven upheld sacred music. In fact, he leads it in a new direction. And, if we have ears to hear, then the Missa Solemnis can open up a new sound world full of theological resonance. 

While working on the Missa,  Beethoven wrote out the Latin text of the mass on a piece of paper and added a German translation next to each line. As a teenager, Beethoven regularly played the organ for mass in the court at Bonn; he knew the Catholic liturgy from memory. So why would he write out the text and its translation? Because he wanted to explore the meaning of each word more fully, looking up a German dictionary for definitions and synonyms that would enlarge his understanding of the text. And if the expression mark in the score of the Missa (‘with devotion’) and his collection of devotional literature in his library is anything to go by, this process was an act of meditation for the composer. This was no routine setting of the mass. In fact, if you listen carefully, not only did Beethoven look up individual words to amplify their meaning, it seems that he also looked up the biblical reference to set their meaning in context. 

Listen to the Sanctus: you will hear echoes of the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter six. Beethoven conjures up a temple trembling at its foundations as the angels sing ‘Holy, holy, holy’. Similarly, in the Benedictus, you will hear echoes of the Palm Sunday procession from the gospels. The music is a match in the form of a pastoral; it depicts Jesus arriving as a king but in the form a humble shepherd riding a donkey, as the crowds chant “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There is no sense of Promethean triumph here, but the sound of meekness and majesty. 

We don’t need to tie ourselves up in knots to understand Beethoven or the Missa solemnis as secular. May be, to use the composer’s own words, Beethoven was just an ordinary Catholic writing extraordinary music to ‘instil religious affections’ in the congregants. This view would be a more faithful account of the composer’s life, but it would also radically change the way we understand Beethoven and the subsequent ‘progress’ of music history in our textbooks.  And this, perhaps, points to the most critical function of sacred music: to reveal the hearts of its hearers. The Missa solemnis, as Beethoven's greatest work, is a capstone which many have rejected as the cornerstone of his oeuvre. Try not to trip up on it. 

Listen to Beethoven's mass

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.