5 min read

Faith in Beethoven

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. 

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

To the abyss and back. The art of Peter Howson

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. 

Painter Peter Howson captures personal conflict, toxic masculinity and horrific wars. Alastair Gordon reviews his work. Part of the Problem with Men series.
A painting shows a group of refugees waiting behind a barrier across a road, the background is intense yellow.
Barrier Sunset; 1995; oil on canvas; 122 x 183cm.
Flowers Gallery, London; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente.

“Everybody’s capable of doing wild things,” says artist Peter Howson, scratching his head as he looks pensively over his paintings.  He is talking about the events of his youth and how experiences of trauma, addiction and childhood bullying have influenced the way he paints the misfits, non-conformists and the overlooked.  

Howson is one of those rare breeds of artist who garners both public adoration and critical acclaim, an achievement celebrated in his recent retrospective at Edinburgh City Art Centre, an ambitious show spanning four floors and four decades of the painter’s career.  

I asked curator, David Patterson why Howson’s work continues to draw public interest. “People can see in every brush stroke how he pours his heart and soul into it,” he replies. “A lot of people are commenting on his honesty. He’s brutally honest and speaks what he feels in his heart.”  

Howson rose to public attention shortly after his graduation from Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s with a public commission for a series of wall murals for the Feltham Community Association in London. He became known for his visceral depictions of men caught in contradictory states often painted in monumental scale with his particular style of raw, fleshy realism, an approach influenced by his interest in German Expressionism. It was his tutor, Alexander Moffatt who first introduced Howson to the work of Otto Dix and Max Beckman, their brutal exposition of the German bourgeoises clearly making an early impact. From the hulking boxers and football hooligans of his early career to the bullish vulnerability of soldiers currently fighting in the Ukraine war, his characters are rendered with a raw realism, matched only by the brutal honesty of the artist himself.   

People misunderstand the meaning: they think that I’m making (those men) into heroes, when it’s not that at all. 

Howson was part of a group of male figurative painters known as the New Glasgow Boys, alongside Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie and Steven Campbell, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art at a similar time in the 1980s. Later artists such as Jenny Saville and Alison Watt would continue the Scottish figurative tradition.  

It might be easy to misread his early work in particular as a kind of ode to masculine swagger but when Howson speaks of his work it becomes clear his intentions are more to dispel such toxic masculinity. “I was bullied a lot at school,” he reflects. “I felt so emasculated when I was young, I tried to build myself up: I became a bouncer and wanted to exact revenge on my bullies and I joined the army. All these things that are really not me. People misunderstand the meaning: they think that I’m making (those men) into heroes, when it’s not that at all. It’s a contradiction: I’m trying to get power into my work at the same time as taking the mickey. But some of the Bosnian work is my freest.”  

In 1993 Howson was appointed as official war artist to the Bosnian conflict where he witnessed first-hand the atrocities of conflict. This work culminated in a solo exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum with some of the most harrowing and empathetic works of his career so far. Barrier Sunset, painted in 1995, shows a line of Bosnian refugees, emaciated and restrained by a blockade that bars entry to safe land. Behind them, a burning sky speaks to the ravages of war.   

Howson is an artist who wears his past on his sleeve, speaking openly about his autism, childhood traumas, recovery from addiction and unnerving experiences serving in the army which he describes as “hell on earth”. Rather than dismissing these traumatic experiences, Howson finds way to manifest them in paint, a process that demonstrates profound empathy with his subjects, both villain and victim.  

“You’re always walking a tightrope and I always say I’m walking on the edge of the cliff,” says Howson as he reflects on the influence of traumatic memories. “The trick is not to fall off. But you can go to the edge and look over into the abyss and the abyss is frightening.” Howson takes us to the abyss and brings us back again. Like Dante, a key influence on the artist, Howson doesn’t shy away from the more macabre, morbid and sinister subjects of the human experience yet refuses wallow. His recent ink paintings depict the effects of corona virus and atrocities of the war in Ukraine. Rendered with biblical intensity, bodies writhe in a mass of human flesh pulling and straining as in battle or torment.  

His faith is as sincere as his painting, neither dogmatic or didactic, worn on his sleeve along with his experiences of trauma and addiction 

Unusually in British art, Howson also speaks openly about his faith, having converted to Christianity later in life. Indeed, a whole floor of the exhibition is dedicated to his religious paintings.  “There’s a part of me that wants that peace” he says. “It’s why I’m not frightened of the death thing. The real life is yet to come.” Howson acknowledges the unusual nature of his belief, not least in an art world where sincere religious faith is something of a novelty. 

“There’s hardly anyone believes these days but I don’t care if I’m wrong anyway because I’ll never know it anyway.” Even his faith is expressed with honest cynicism. “Religion in art is unfashionable,” he says yet Howson seems unfazed by fashions. His faith is as sincere as his painting, neither dogmatic or didactic, worn on his sleeve along with his experiences of trauma and addiction.  


2016; oil on canvas; 183.5 x 245cm; private collection; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente.

A painting of a melee of many people across Christ on the cross.

This exhibition laments the broken nature of our world yet offers glimpses of hope in human empathy, compassion and ultimately in a redemptive God. In this way Howson describes his painting as “a warning of what’s to come”.  Howson refuses to be defined by his traumatic past and it seems evident he now sees the world through the lens of his Christianity, a perspective that clearly defines his understanding of human nature, masculinity and redemption. Whilst we might consider Howson a  chronicler of our times his painting that more than reportage.  He looks into the very soul of humanity, finding hope in the horror, making visible the invisible and giving voice to the unheard.