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Theses Doctoral

Beethoven’s Catholicism: A Reconsideration

Chong, Nicholas Junkai

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, accounts of Beethoven’s religious attitudes have consistently sought to separate the composer from the Catholic religion in which he was born. It is often assumed that, as a child of the Enlightenment, Beethoven cannot have felt a strong affinity for Catholic beliefs, preferring instead an idiosyncratic and unorthodox approach to religion that was suspicious of dogma and tradition. This has led, in turn, to the scholarly marginalization of his religious music, with the Missa Solemnis being the notable exception. On the one hand, Beethoven’s religious works other than the Missa have been frequently dismissed as inauthentic “occasional works” written purely for commercial reasons. On the other hand, the Missa itself, though regarded as a “true” Beethoven work, has been largely interpreted as a de-Catholicized vehicle for the expression of the composer’s untraditional religious outlook.
This dissertation challenges long-accepted views of Beethoven and his religious music by demonstrating that they were more heavily influenced by Catholic theological ideas than is usually thought. I focus especially on the connection between the composer and the Bavarian Catholic theologian Johann Michael Sailer (1751-1832), the most important contemporary religious figure for understanding Beethoven’s religious attitudes. In addition, given its monumental scale and its prominence in Beethoven scholarship, I devote special attention to the Missa Solemnis, which the composer was working on at the time of his first documented contact with Sailer and his writings. However, I also investigate other evidence linking Beethoven with the Catholicism of his time: religious references in documentary sources such as Beethoven’s letters, his Tagebuch, and the Heiligenstadt Testament; religious books by theologians other than Sailer in Beethoven’s library; and the musical content of the religious works Beethoven wrote before the Missa, especially the Gellert-Lieder, Christus am Ölberge, and the Mass in C.
My study shows that much previous scholarship has misinterpreted or overlooked the significance of such evidence, owing to an inadequate understanding of the complex nature of German Catholicism during Beethoven’s era. I draw on revisionist historical research showing that the Enlightenment was not, as is often believed, fundamentally opposed to traditional religious belief. Beethoven’s religious environment was, for instance, defined by a historical phenomenon that has been called the German Catholic Enlightenment, which, broadly speaking, attempted to reconcile Catholic belief with some of the liberal, progressive ideals normally associated with the Enlightenment in general. The composer appears to have been interested in several specific religious themes emblematic of this Catholic Enlightenment. At the same time, he seems also to have been attracted by some other ideas associated with the Catholic Restoration, a movement that emerged at least partly in opposition to the Catholic Enlightenment. This mixed allegiance was similar to that which characterized Sailer’s theology, and likely accounts for why he found Sailer such an appealing figure around the time he was composing the Missa Solemnis.
A more complete and historically coherent understanding of Beethoven’s religious context suggests that the composer was more of a Catholic than he has so often been made out to be, albeit one who was attracted to varieties of Catholicism that have become obscured by the mists of history.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Sisman, Elaine R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 27, 2016