“It was not a fortuitous meeting of chordal atoms that made the world. If order and beauty are reflected in the constitution of the universe, then there is a God.”
Ludwig van Beethoven is considered by many to be the world’s greatest composer. From the time he was born in 1770, Beethoven faced overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. The defining tragedy of his life, and the one which diminished his performing career, was his growing deafness. It was this miserable affliction that intensified the tumultuous eruption of emotion which is found throughout Beethoven’s life and music. As Beethoven’s deafness increased, he withdrew more and more into the work of composing and into his intimate and unorthodox relationship with God.
Discerning Beethoven’s belief is no easy task. All his biographers agree that he was intensely spiritual. But his untraditional faith makes it difficult to categorize the composer. Beethoven, like many geniuses, was a very complex man with eclectic interests and influences. Beethoven was born and baptized into a Roman Catholic family. His mother was very pious. In his youth, he attended a variety of churches and his principle teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, was a Protestant believer. Beethoven’s letters and diaries contain dozens of devout references to God, giving evidence of strong conviction. His relationship to God was deeply personal, and he turned to God to make sense out of life’s unfairness.
To a close friend in 1810, he confessed an almost childlike faith: “I have no friend. I must live by myself. I know, however, that God is nearer to me than others. I go without fear to Him, I have constantly recognized and understood Him.“1
Beethoven owned both a French and a Latin Bible and late in life he prayed with his young nephew almost every morning. His library included such Christian devotionals as Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and a very heavily marked copy of Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in Nature. And of course Beethoven composed some of the most profound Christian masterpieces of history.
Beethoven’s complex personality traits leave the world’s greatest musicologists at odds on the subject of the composer’s faith. Perhaps the best clues to his personal beliefs can be found in Beethoven’s music – music which reveals the man himself. The portrait or Beethoven’s life which emerges from historical accounts, his own written reflections and his music is one of tremendous achievement in the face of unimaginable difficulty and tragedy. Hearing loss would present a severe trial to anyone, but for a musician – indeed, a master musician – deafness was devastating.
Nevertheless, Beethoven was determined to prevail and to continue in his art, which he considered a sacred trust placed upon him by his Creator. It is astonishing to study the complexities and beauty of his late works and to realize that, except in his imagination, he never heard them performed. Beethoven’s principle virtue was his sheer determination to overcome. The judgement of a man’s greatness is not only to be measured in the mission he accomplishes, but in the obstacles he has overcome in the process.2
1 Philip Kruseman, Beethoven’s Own Words (London: Hinricksen Edition, 1947), p.53.
2 Compiled from The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (Sparrow Press, Nashville, 1992) pp.35-42