Beethoven: “To play without passion is inexcusable”

Giandomenico Mucci, SJ

 Giandomenico Mucci, SJ / Art / Published Date:30 July 2020/Last Updated Date:3 August 2020

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Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. Hence December 2020 will mark the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Among the great musicians of 19th-century Germany, Beethoven is certainly the best known and most popular. It has been said of him that “he is the core around whom concerts are organized all over the world.”[1] While musicologists consider him “under the visual angle of the so-called pure music,” and for them, perhaps, his supremacy remains unshakable,[2] his popularity is immense even outside the realm of musical specialists. There is no person of average culture who does not know of his symphonies, his piano concertos, at least some of his piano sonatas, his overtures, and the choral fourth movement of his Ninth symphony.

The story of his life and personality has also been extraordinarily popular. Very few people are unaware of his physical appearance. He was a man of vigorous features, sturdy and stocky with broad shoulders and a lion’s head, with a heavy complexion marked by smallpox, with very mobile eyes and a sometimes shrill voice. In his relationships with others he was often coarse and clumsy. He suffered poor health, being afflicted with various ailments, especially deafness since his youth, a condition which was the drama of his existence. In this rather unpleasant body lived a very noble soul. He was strong and tenacious, sensitive to the point of tenderness, yet also closed, harsh and withdrawn to the point of grumpiness, as often happens to those who have had a difficult childhood and emotional deficiencies. He was the son of an alcoholic father, and his mother, a cook, died when he was 17 years old.[3]

La Civilta Cattolica

The popularity he has constantly enjoyed depends, of course, on another factor. He always sought freedom and independence, dignity for people, and showed love for humanity. It could not be otherwise. He had been spiritually formed in the Enlightenment, which in him, after the French Revolution, assumed an intensely passionate style, which involved awareness of his own genius, exceptionally strong-willed energy, and total adherence to the ideals and laws that the Revolution imposed in order to achieve the goal of brotherhood and equality among all.

He was the first to break the relationships of subordination – better still, subjection – that used to bind artists to the aristocracy. While Haydn and Mozart had lived their creativity within the narrow circle of aristocratic families who subsidized the work of the musicians, Beethoven lived off his own compositions, which he presented to publishers and demanded remuneration, so opening up his art to a wider public than that of the imperial and royal theaters. When Mozart dared to rebel against the feudal order of the archiepiscopal court of Salzburg, he found a life of hardship. Beethoven faced that order as a free and independent man.[4]

To commemorate this anniversary of the great artist within the limits of an article, we have chosen to touch on a point in Beethoven’s biography well known to specialists but perhaps unknown to the general public who listen to his “sacred music” and – as we have often observed – think that the musician, using the liturgical text of the Roman Mass, intended to offer his testimony to the Catholic Church. This is not exactly the case.

The Missa Solemnis

“Mozart’s sacred music is Catholic in the highest sense, being religious as a work of art,” and its Catholicism consists “in its humanity, in its appeal to all devout and naive hearts, in its clear simplicity.”[5] Beethoven, who also in his own way firmly believed in God, was the founder of a secular religion, the religion of the value of human freedom and human solidarity. It is no coincidence that to the Catholic Haydn he might seem an atheist.[6]

The Missa Solemnis in D major, op. 123, for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, choir, organ and orchestra, of 1823, was esteemed by the composer himself as his major work and, taking into account his cultural orientations, it could be defined as the “Mass of suffering humanity.”[7]

The Missa Solemnis was composed as a gift to honor Archduke Rudolf of Habsburg on the occasion of his episcopal consecration after he was appointed Archbishop of Olmütz and then cardinal. Rudolf, the last of the 14 sons of Emperor Leopold II, epileptic and with little aptitude for politics or a military career, had been guided into theological studies. He met Beethoven between 1803 and 1805, when he was about 15 years old, and became a student of piano and composition. Throughout his life he was close to the musician, supported him spiritually and materially and, during the Congress of Vienna, introduced him to the various monarchs gathered in the capital of the Empire.[8]

The musician was very fond of his pupil, to whom he wrote more than 100 letters and dedicated 15 of his works, including the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Trio op. 97, known as the Archduke Trio, the Sonatas op. 106 and 111 and the Grosse Fuge op. 133. In return Rudolf was his patron at the imperial court.[9]

The artist painstakingly prepared to compose the Missa Solemnis by studying the body of religious music of the past. He researched texts and treatises on liturgical practice and immersed himself in the music of Palestrina, Händel, Bach and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.[10] In the Missa Solemnis one can trace musical patterns and images derived from previous liturgical styles.

“The Mass proceeds from reverence, supplication and blind faith. It develops to disturbance and restlessness” and “it builds a bridge over the abyss of despair, of numbness, leading to the nostalgic hope of a humanity reconciled in love and in the certainty of God’s paternal goodness.”[11] The same happens with the ninth symphony. Writing about this Mass to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven confided: “There is nothing higher than to approach the Divinity more than other mortals and spread, thanks to this contact, the rays of the Divinity among humanity.”[12]

But of which deity was Beethoven thinking? One scholar comments: “On his desk he kept a framed paper with the reflections: ‘I am what I am – I am what I am, who was and who will be, no mortal man has lifted my veil – He is unique and descends from himself and from this unique being all things derive their essence.’ They include quotations from Schiller and comments from texts of ancient Egypt and reflect Beethoven’s religious conception, in which esoteric elements are found mixed with a strong Masonic component.”[13]

Another scholar, again referring to the Missa Solemnis, writes: “It seems that Beethoven wants to tell us of the secular, Masonic meaning of this evocation of the otherworldly God, who, in the moment of music making, is the human matter of the infinite, representation of a time that continues beyond the extinction of all sound. The aesthetic deception of art is the only possible religion […]. Above the God conceived as song and light there is another God: the Authentic, who would never have become man. By deceiving Christ, he has locked him forever in us, in the spirals of our time.”[14] This seems the ideal background in which the many expressions of the inspired musician must be placed before the wonders of nature that made him see it, in its multiform beauty, as “a glorious school for the heart” and mirror of the divine.[15]

In conclusion, the Missa Solemnis is open to two opposing interpretations. There are those who, like Vincent d’Indy are sensitive to the pure liturgical text, and think that this supreme work expresses the Catholic faith and that in it Beethoven demonstrated his devotion to the doctrine of the Roman Church. And there are those who think that the artist was a sui generis Catholic, profoundly faithful to the Enlightenment deism of the 18th century, with an evident propensity for pantheism. Perhaps the most balanced judgment remains that of Eduard Herriot, according to whom the Missa Solemnis has its own religious accent, whatever the religion.[16] This judgement is completely acceptable. Those who listen to the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Benedictus of this Mass have a religious experience that elevates them to the threshold of the inexpressible divine.


An essay by Enrico Fubini dedicated to a writer[17] who was a contemporary of Beethoven offers us the opportunity to point out an aspect that illuminates the very nature of music and the effect it has on the listener. It is an aspect usually studied in the context of romanticism. He looks beyond the historical-biographical discourse on Beethoven the man and the musician, beyond the beliefs he professed as a man influenced by the culture of his time. Instead, he states that in his art, even in the Missa Solemnis, or in any artistic expression, a metaphysical value must be recognized that goes far beyond the conceptual, emotional and sentimental evidence.

Music in particular, and poetry too, seem to have within them something elusive, unspeakable, the result of a tension, perhaps even unconscious and not sought by the artist, of the finite tendency of art toward the infinite, a tension that is testimony to the unbridgeable disproportion between God and humanity. There is, therefore, in the musical experience an irrational objective aspect that is felt as passive abandonment and discovery of the unutterable.

Thus music is configured as a translation in sentient terms of a pre-existing truth, as if there were a pre-established harmony between music and the human soul, between an order superior to humans and their individual feelings. On this depends the intuitive and sympathetic understanding of music. It would, therefore, always and intrinsically possess a religious component, a call to another dimension of life, an openness to a horizon precluded to reason. Cioran, who was an atheist, said he believed in God when he listened to Bach, and everyone knows that Karl Barth, a theologian, considered Mozart’s music as a ladder to God. There is a kind of “sacred spirit” inherent in the art of sounds, a spirit that praises the Lord even when the creator of those sounds has received an Enlightenment education, whose principles he repeats when he speaks as a man and not when he creates as an artist. The effect produced by art brings that spirit to the listener, although the interpreter and the critic ignore it and insist on the intellectual convictions of the artist.

It is well known that John Paul II taught that, “even beyond its more typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.”[18] He added: “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is in order to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion?”[19]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 6, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.6

[1] M. Mila, Breve storia della musica, Turin, Einaudi, 2014, 204.

[2] See ibid., 205.

[3] See G. Perricone, “Ludwig van Beethoven nel bicentenario della nascita”, in Civ. Catt. 1970 IV 540-549.

[4] Cf. A. Manzoni, Guida all’ascolto della musica sinfonica, Milan, Feltrinelli, 19776, 35-38; A. Einstein, Breve storia della musica, Milan, SE, 2008, 109-114; L. Mittner, Storia della letteratura tedesca, II/2, Turin, Einaudi, 1984, 687-691.

[5] A. Einstein, W.A. Mozart. Il carattere e l’opera, Milan, Ricordi, 1987, 345.

[6] See L. Mittner, Storia della letteratura tedesca, op. cit., 688.

[7] L. della Croce, Ludwig van Beethoven. Le nove sinfonie e le altre opere per orchestra, Pordenone, Studio Tesi, 1988, 495.

[8] See Ibid., 482.

[9] See M. Solomon, Beethoven. La vita, l’opera, il romanzo familiare, Venice, Marsilio, 1996, 341.

[10] See Ibid., 343

[11] A. Einstein, Breve storia della musica, op. cit., 113.

[12] M. Solomon, Beethoven, op. cit., 342f.

[13] L. della Croce, Ludwig van Beethoven, op. cit., 284f.

[14] A. Zignani, Ludwig van Beethoven. Una nuova interpretazione della vita e delle Opere, Varese, Zecchini, 2020, 202.

[15] See P. Repetto, “L’ultimo Beethoven”, in Id., L’orizzonte dell’eternità. La musica romantica, Genova, il melangolo, 2003, 28-30.

[16] See E. Herriot, Beethoven. La sua vita e il suo tempo, Milan, Tarantola, 1947, 253f.

[17] See E. Fubini, “Introduzione”, in W. H. Wackenroder, Fantasie sulla musica, Fiesole (Fi), discanto, 1981, IX-XXVII.

[18] John Paul II, Letter to Artists (April 4, 1999), No. 10.

[19] Ibid., No. 13.