Did Beethoven believe in God (1)?

Did Beethoven believe in God (1)?


norman lebrecht

March 21, 2020

Welcome to the 47th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Mass in C, opus 86 (1807)


Two questions: was Beethoven a religious man? and does it matter whether he was or not? We know he did not go to Mass much and that he was generally scornful of all forms of established authority. It stands to reason that an artist who resented autocrats and empires should also bridle at the unchecked power of the Church to affect the lives of ordinary people at their most intimate and vulnerable moment.

At the same time, we know that he showed an active interest in church music, an interest that bore fruit in two masses, the one in C and the far better-known Mass in D, the Missa Solemnis, as well as a few themed works such as Christ on the Mount of Olives. Beethoven was raised Roman Catholic in Bonn and played the organ in church at the age of ten. His father was conventional, his mother devout. When he became guardian to his nephew Karl, Beethoven made sure the boy attended Mass. On the other hand, he sought no solace in God when facing life’s crises – deafness, bereavements, his failure to find love and the bodily agonies of ill health. In the ninth symphony, beethoven calls on mankind to help itself by throwing off the shackles of servitude and embracing universal brotherhood. He does not look to the Church for salvation.

That being the case, do we regard the two Masses as religious works, or as tributes to a religious culture from which Beethoven has discreetly removed himself? If so, how does that affect their integrity? Or should we ignore these thorny theological consideration altogether? Before addressing the Missa Solemnis tomorrow, let’s examine the less-celebrated Mass in C.

Commissioned by Haydn’s patron, the Prince of Esterhazy, the Mass was premiered on his estate in September 1807 by the choir and orchestra over which Haydn once presided. It follows the traditional structure of the Mass, except insofar as it used femaile soloists, who would not have been permitted to sing in church. The opening Kyrie section has a joyousness rare in Ro,an Catholic worship and the concluding Agnus Dei has a direct emotional impact. The critic E TA Hoffmann perceived in ‘a feeling of inner hurt which does not tear the heart but repairs it’ – in other words, a work of art rather than of worship. Prince Esterhazy exclaimed,’Beethoven, what is it you have done again?’ Clearly, the composer was not following Church rules as Haydn had done. Nevertheless, one has only to hear this elusive work in the hands of non-Catholics to feel that some of its idiom is missing.

Thomas Beecham, a double heretic since he was rude about Beethoven as well as Rome, is worth hearing purely for the qualities of his 1950s English soloists, Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair and, in prticular, the tenor Richard Lewis who was, around this time, surmounting with effortless ease, the north slopes of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. He is an unexpected joy in a compromised production. John Eliot Gardiner, with his bouts of nervous energy, takes us no closer to the heart of the matter despite his magnificent Monteverdi Choir. Colin Davis is unnaturally cautious, and Richard Hickox disappointingly earthbound. Among non-Catholic artists, the one that passes the incense test is George Guest with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Choir Of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and soloists Felicity Palmer, Helen Watts, Robert Tear and Christopher Keyte. Perhaps it’s the cloister setting with Stephen Cleobury at the organ, but these performers place the Mass midway between church and state, a work of power that is as much human as it is divine.

None of this should occlude the recognition that the finest Mass in C was recorded on English soil in 1971 by the New Philharmonia orchestra and chorus under the baton of Carlo-Maria Giulini, who had yet to achieve much recognition outside Italy. This is one of those marvels of the conductor’s art where, from the opening downbeat, the listener is aware that everything for the next 50 minutes will follow the single-minded heartbeat of the man with the stick in his hand. The Kyrie has a drama about it that, while far from operatic, is rooted within the ceremonies of the Roman church. The soloists – Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Marius Rintzler and Theo Altmeyer – are full of character and the chorus pack a full-blooded punch. Giulini is unmatched in the cleanliness of his tempo shifts and dynamic changes, an imperceptible transition from fast to slow, loud to quiet. This must rank among his greatest recordings, a reminder of an art few practise nowadays with such ineffable delicacy.


The only recording of comparable authenticity is, to my mind, the one by Günter Wand, conductor of the opera house and orchestra in Cologne, Beethoven’s native Catholic heartland, from the end of the Second World War to 1974. Wand (1912-2002) was a Bruckner and Beethoven specialist who can sound wooden when he strays beyond his chosen terrain. He was prone to rehearse orchestras to exhaustion and did not get invited much abroad  – except to the BBC Symphony where he obtained eight rehearals for some Proms.

While seldom exciting in the manner of grand maestros, there is something numinous about Wand’s quiet passages in Beethoven that few others attain. He recorded the Mass in C in 1982 with Bavarian Radio forces and the result is more quest than achievement, a search for the true meaning of this non-categorisable work, a masterpiece nonetheless.

Missa Solemnis tomorrow.


  • Greg Bottini says:

    My choice for “the finest Mass in C” is Karl Richter leading an unsurpassed vocal team which includes the angelic Gundula Janowitz.
    Of course, it went unmentioned in NL’s survey.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Beethoven was not conventionally religious but was certainly a believer in God as the portrait of him holding the score of his mass suggests where he is working on the ‘Credo’. I have Giulini’s recording but found is somewhat cumbersome. By far the best is Karajan’s two in 1960s and 1970s both with stella soloists (an absolute necessity) and although not perfect he gets nearer to the heart of this work than anyone else.

  • asteven says:

    Giulini had conducted the famous Don Carlos at Covent Garden in 1958 and 1959. Then an equally historic production of Falstaff in 1961.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Er, in the Ninth synphony he calls upon humanity to embrace the God-created spirit of Joy (literally the third word of the Ode is “Gotterfunken”) and goes on to praise a “Loving Father” who “dwells beyond the stars”. It’s an intensely religious work and Beethoven lived in an age when belief in a deity was the default position for any thinking, rational person. Even the French Revolution was unable to operate without acknowledging a Supreme Being. Atheism was a fringe position, held by a tiny minority of cranks and fanatics.

    Beethoven’s work is shot through with his faith, from his early Cantata for Joseph II to the “Heiliger dankgesang” in his A minor quartet. True, it’s flattering to modern sensibilities to imagine that he was a contemporary urban liberal, out of time. The reality, I suggest, is far more interesting – and challenging.

    • M.Arnold says:

      “cranks and fanatics”!! I prefer the “un-superstitious” or “rational”. As a life long Atheist (We’re all born Atheists until we are told to believe in one of about 3000 gods by our parents) with 2 children- my son, an IT expert and my daughter a lawyer with piano degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music and my retired surgeon wife are all Atheists, hardly “cranks and fanatics”. I am tempted to put this response in more direct 2 word form but out of respect for this forum, I’ll be a gentleman (a multi-linguist one with a PhD from Columbia U. in European history-also not a crank or fanatic).The fanatics are those that practice their faith based initiatives by ramming planes into bldgs for some moronic ignorant belief developed when people didn’t even know the earth moved around the sun or what caused rain. If you’re looking to insult a group of people, try, western civilization’s longest surviving international organization of misogynistic, homophobic, nazi loving, tyranny supporting, anti-humanist child rapists-the catholic church.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        I see your comment as obviously fanatical.

      • C Porumbescu says:

        My comment referred entirely to the world-view of Beethoven’s era, not our own. Absolutely no reference to the contemporary world or anyone in it.

        But having read your response, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised that the point seems to have eluded you….

  • rita says:

    Recording this – in Tooting, if I remember rightly – was a life’s highlight for those of us privileged to sing in the chorus. But then so was every concert with this most wonderful of conductors.

  • We never talk enough about the great Carlo-Maria!

  • Luca says:

    The remark that Giulini has yet to acieve much recognition outside Italy greatly surprises me. He gave a lot of highly regarded concerts and conducted a few celebrated opera productions in London. I particularly remember his wonderful performances of the Missa Solemnis with the Philharmonia and its superb choir trained by Wilhelm Pitz.

    • Ainslie says:

      He was certainly well-known in Chicago, where he served as Principal Guest Conductor of the CSO from 1969 through 1972. I sang with the CSO chorus in his performances of the Mass in C. I remember being impressed by what a great work it was! Subsequent performances have changed my mind, and have only made me more appreciative of Guilini’s art.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am glad I had the chance to play this work, once, while in my university orchestra. The late Henri Pensis was the conductor. I have never heard it in concert since, but this write up has triggered an interest to experience it once again.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Of course Beethoven believed in God. He was just suspicious of God’s ambassadors. Blame me for bigotry if you wish, but in religious music the results seem to be consistently much better when the conductor has the right faith (Gustav Leonhardt who lamented that it did not feel meaninful to contuct the Matthäus-Passion for a public that did not believed in the contents of the music through an ansemble that most did not believe as well).

    My favorites for the Beethoven masses are Helmut Rilling’s interpretation for the Mass C-Dur, and for the Missa Solemnis Karl Böhm’s 1955 recording and Harnoncourt’s 1992 recording.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Giulini and Wand. Two wonderful conductors I was lucky enough to see in concert.

  • Doug says:

    Of course Beethoven believed in, and worshiped the Creator, in his own way. He may have scorned authority, but not the ultimate authority. If you think otherwise, then you have ZERO understanding of the time in which Beethoven lived.