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A Very Catholic Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the midst of Advent in 1770. No one precisely knows his birthdate, but December 17 is often given as a hard date because of the record of his Baptism. Beethoven’s Baptism began a long and storied career of Catholicity that has long been swept under the rug by enemies of God and Catholicism who want to divorce the beauty, joy, and transcendental aspects of the great composer from any notion of the Divine to which we are called and Beethoven belonged.
Advent is one of the most important times of the year for Catholics. It is appropriate that at the end of Ordinary Time we are reminded of the Second Coming of Christ in our readings. Advent brilliantly reminds us of Christ’s Incarnation while also pointing us to His Second Coming. The love, beauty, and solidarity in the joys and sufferings of Christ bring closure and healing to the wounded human soul and point us to the love that Heaven holds for us.
It has become a fad to de-Catholicize and de-Christianize Advent. Christmas is now often a time of obscene commercialism instead of reverence, love, and thanksgiving.
When speaking of love during Advent, it is often of the banal sanctimonious kind otherwise detached from any concrete Christianity. Be good, be kind, spend time with your loved ones. Even in the troubling waters we find ourselves today, there is a concerted effort to strike at the heart of Christmas to distract us from the profound importance of remembering the True God of Love who took on human flesh, embraced solidarity with us in suffering, and showed us what true love and beauty are about.
Just as it is a fad to de-Catholicize and de-Christianize Advent, so too is it a fad to ignore the bleeding heart that guided Beethoven who so perfectly captured the spirit of Advent and Christ’s redemptive mission in the world in his many writings and, of course, music.
The enemies of God and Catholicism want it to be known that Beethoven was not really a Catholic composer. He was certainly no Mozart. He was not even a Handel or Bach (great Protestant composers).
Whatever Catholicism triumphantly sounds forth from Beethoven’s trumpets are but masks and mirrors to satiate his Catholic supporters and patrons. The real Beethoven, these writers and scholars tell us, was unorthodox at best and possibly even irreligious in personal belief. Yet this view of Beethoven can only be achieved through a willful destruction of Beethoven’s composition and an ignoring of his writings.
But could a Janus-faced non-Catholic Beethoven have written, “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” as he did in his Heiligenstadt Testament?
Beethoven’s many letters bleed with a sense of the divine reality which only Catholic theology imparts to its believers. In a letter to a close friend Beethoven poignantly wrote, “I know, however, that God is nearer to me than others. I go without fear to Him.” Likewise, to Archduke Rudolf — a very Catholic man and generous patron of Beethoven — Beethoven wrote, “Nothing higher exists than to approach God.” These are not the utterances of a man divorced from Catholicism or simply sugarcoating theological pieties to Catholic friends and patrons.
More than his letters stand his music as a testimony to God’s beauty, love, and greatness which we are all called to remember and emulate.
In Fidelio, Beethoven’s only proper opera, which includes the famous “Prisoners’ Chorus,” the chorus evokes God’s love and commitment to the dispossessed. No Deist or irreligious European of the same time gave such considerations to the ragged and dispossessed peoples as did Christians. Let us sing the truth that the prisoners also sing: “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!”
Those with ears to hear will immediately recognize the rich biblical and theological language that moves the song of the prisoners.
Beethoven’s most famous musical composition is the Ninth Symphony with its immortal score Ode to Joy. It is true that Ode to Joy is set to Friedrich Schiller’s poem and that Schiller was a notorious philhellene. But Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is not an unadulterated appropriation of Schiller’s philhellenism. Rather, Beethoven thrusts the spirit of the God of the patriarchs and the apostles into his stirring reimagination of the work.
Joy, moreover than pleasure, is a truly and uniquely Christian concept. Not even Schiller could escape that inheritance even in his poetic composition. The Greeks may have indulged in pleasure, but the notion of joy is elusive in Greek philosophy and religion. In fact, it is nowhere found. Beethoven more emphatically emphasizes joy in his slight revision of Schiller, underscoring how true solidarity is found only in the joy of God and that our celebration in joy is due to God.
Furthermore, Beethoven composed several very Catholic pieces during his lifetime. The Mass in C, Missa Solemnis, and Christ on the Mount of Olives stand as a triune manifestation of Beethoven’s own Catholicism. Critics say that these pieces were merely mercenary, composed to satisfy the request of his patrons (like the Mass in C for Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy and Missa Solemnis for Archduke Rudolf) or that they are more energetic and operatic scores simply set in a religious backdrop with no real religious significance (like Christ on the Mount of Olives).
Far from it.
Beethoven’s undeniably Catholic pieces reveal the magnitude with which Beethoven incorporated the best of Catholic theology and aesthetics into his music. The Mass in C points to the beauty and love that move the stars and the beauty and love that Christ Himself embodies and that we will see in the Beatific Vision.
Missa Solemnis reminds us of the triumph of hope, something that Advent itself out to remind us through the Coming of the Lord for the redemption of humanity and the hope of the glory of heavenly inheritance. Beethoven even considered Missa Solemnis the culmination of his life’s work. So much for a mere mercenary piece.
But Christ on the Mount of Olives is quintessentially Catholic in its concentration on the suffering of Christ. Not on the cross, to be sure, but in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ’s coming to suffer is not only Pauline, but also unmistakably Catholic.
From time immemorial and through conflicts with the early heresies, Catholic theology came to underscore the suffering solidarity of Christ with us through His real human agony and suffering.
The beauty, grandeur, and transcendent quality of Beethoven’s music perfectly encapsulates the very spirit of Advent. The Church fathers long commented that Advent is a time of great beauty, love, and joy because God on High came in the form of human flesh to suffer with us and redeem us through this incarnational love that gives us hope. So too does Beethoven’s music point us to this reality concerning Christ, the human experience, and the hope we find in Him and Him alone. “Trust in the help of God! Hope whispers softly in my ears.”
Advent is a time of joy, and Beethoven’s music sought to capture the spirit of joy in its scores and aesthetic grandeur that direct us to the heavens and not to the dust of the Earth. Advent is also a time of loving solidarity, and loving compassion and solidarity also run through Beethoven’s music.
Lastly, Advent is a time when we are reminded of the true mission of Christ: His coming into the world to save through His love. Here, too, does Beethoven incarnate that mission in his music and points us to the very God who he rightly says is the Highest Reality that we can approach. And praise God that He came to us to reveal that High Reality to us in the person of Christ Jesus. That praise and thanksgiving to God was undoubtedly reflected in Beethoven’s music.

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