Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) set the standard in many genres for the generations of composers who followed him, especially with his 9 symphonies, 16 string quartets, and 32 piano sonatas. Because of his fame as an instrumental composer, bolstered by the “master narrative” of the brilliant, heroic composer who worked without formal patronage, it is often overlooked today that, throughout his life, he frequently turned his talents to secular, sacred, and liturgical vocal music of various kinds—opera, cantata, mass, oratorio, song, and choral compositions.

The Bonn Years.

Beethoven grew up in Bonn, an electoral seat at the time, in a Catholic family. He was the son of Johann van Beethoven, a tenor in the electoral court (and son of Ludwig van Beethoven, bass and court music director) and his wife, Maria Magdalena. In his early years, he studied organ with various teachers and in 1782 began to substitute as court organist for his teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe; in 1784 he was hired as deputy organist while also working in the court as a harpsichordist and violist. The performance of a variety of liturgical music with orchestra is documented from the time of Elector Maximilian Friedrich. In 1776, the Kapellmeister Andrea Lucchesi, who had been serving in the position since 1774, composed the oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo (libretto by Pietro Metastasio) for a performance during Holy Week at the holy sepulcher in the court church.

Beginning in 1784, under Elector Maximilian Franz, brother of the Habsburg emperor Joseph II, elaborate accompanied liturgical music became limited to Sundays and holidays, and in the spirit of the Enlightenment, stronger and simpler vocal forms were cultivated, especially German-language congregational hymns and Gregorian chant with organ accompaniment. Franz Gerhard Wegeler reported that, during Holy Week of 1790, 1791, or 1792, Beethoven once accompanied the members of the court choir singing the Lamentations of Jeremiah on the piano (the organ not being used during Lent; Wegeler and Ries, 1988, p. 20). Beethoven harmonized the chorale so audaciously that his accompaniment threw the singer Ferdinand Heller off track—and he had written out this musical joke beforehand, as documented in Beethoven’s so-called Kafka Sketchbook.

Beethoven in Vienna, the First 20 Years (1792–1812).

With Beethoven’s move to Vienna, the main focus of his work changed. There is hardly anything more for organ, but he further built his reputation as an excellent pianist and improviser and frequently performed his own compositions (piano trios, op. 1; piano sonatas, op. 2; sonatas for piano and cello, op. 5; piano concertos, opp. 15, 19, 37, 58). At the same time, he studied composition with the most renowned teachers in Vienna: first with Joseph Haydn, then with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, and finally, beginning in 1801—with a view to learning about Italian text setting—with the court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. He made a name for himself as a towering composer of works in various genres, even without piano.

Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1790s, Beethoven suffered from a progressive hearing problem; in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, he forcefully describes how badly he suffers from this handicap and from the resulting social isolation and mistakenly considers himself close to death. The fact that Beethoven composed several songs on sacred texts around 1800 has often been linked with this phase of his struggle with his ailment. Apart from the song “Der Wachtelschlag” (The Song of the Quail), WoO (Werke ohne Opuszahl = works without opus number) 129 (text: Samuel Friedrich Sautter), written in 1803, in which the calls of the bird entreat the listener to fear, praise, thank, and trust in God, the outstanding work from the period 1798 to 1802 is the song collection on six texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, op. 48. The themes dealt with in these freely paraphrased Psalms—love of one’s neighbor, God’s works in nature, repentance, death—seem to have affected Beethoven particularly.

An autobiographical connection is especially evident in Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), op. 85. It is the only complete larger work of Beethoven’s that treats biblical material. The text is by Franz Xaver Huber (1755–1814), a political journalist, who also composed libretti for comic operas and Singspiele for Emanuel Schikaneder’s circle. In his text, Huber relies on the Gethsemane narrative in the four Gospels (Matthew 26:36–46, 50, 56; Mark 14:32–39, 46, 50; Luke 22:39–44, 54; John 17; 18:11–12), combining these with freely conceived ideas, sometimes echoing other Bible passages. The unrhymed iambs of the recitatives are reminiscent of those of Gottfried van Swieten in Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation) and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).

The plot is well known. In the first three of the six total dramatic sections, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane; this is followed by his arrest. The selection and the themes of the Bible passages are significant. Christ, who is the focus of the action, communicates not with his disciples, but only with the angel (seraph) and—in prayer—with God the Father. Judas (and thus the betrayal motif) is absent. There are very close thematic and even linguistic parallels between the text of the oratorio and the (then unpublished) Heiligenstadt Testament, which is probably due to the fact that Beethoven himself likely collaborated on the text. In any case, the potential for self-identification—the suffering artist, isolated by deafness and burdened with thoughts of death—with the lonely and despairing figure of Jesus on the Mount of Olives was considerable.

The orchestral “Introduzione” sets the mood of the emotionally troubled Christ with disjointed musical gestures, striding through a broad spectrum of keys. The chorus of the dim-witted soldiers (no. 4), the arrest of Jesus (no. 5), and the drowsy reaction of the disciples are each set in a characteristic manner: the listener is caught up in a deeply dramatic event, which unfolds quasi theatrically in the present. The oratorio ends like an opera finale, with the entrance of all of the protagonists and a majestic closing chorus.

The genesis of the oratorio is complicated. According to recent research, Beethoven began composing it in February or March of 1803 and worked on it until the day of the performance, 5 April 1803, in his first so-called Akademie (concert of his own works), during Holy Week in the Theater an der Wien, where he had recently been hired by Schikaneder as a kind of  “composer in residence.” He composed a dramatic oratorio, in which he could test out the musical effect of recitatives, arias, and choruses, as a sort of preparation for his actual duty of writing an opera (his first!).

Christus am Ölberge also came into being with an eye to the existing Viennese oratorio tradition: not only had Haydn’s three famous oratorios—Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, 1785), Die Schöpfung (The Creation, 1798), and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons, 1801)—been performed in Vienna in the concert hall with great success, along with (adapted) oratorios of Georg Frideric Händel, but so had Passion oratorios, as a development out of the courtly “sepolcro” genre in the early eighteenth century. In Christus am Ölberge, Beethoven even wrote scene indications in the score, and Jesus appears as a tenor, in the manner of an operatic hero. These two characteristics were particularly ridiculed by the Protestant critics in northern Germany, who were not familiar with the Viennese traditions. For an 1820 performance in Dresden, for example, the part of Jesus was reworked into the third person, using indirect speech. In England—where the work was performed frequently beginning in 1814—the same thing was done. In 1842, a whole new text was used in order to perform the popular work in spite of “the objectionable nature of the German libretto” (Henry Hudson in the foreword to his edition of op. 86 with an English text after the first book of Samuel: Engedi, or, David in the Wilderness: A Sacred Drama in Vocal Score [London: J. Alfred Novello, c. 1842]). Thus Christus am Ölberge was among the most frequently performed oratorios in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially in German-speaking areas, England, and France.

As early as 1804, Beethoven himself revised the work; the first version can be reconstructed only fragmentarily. Wanting to publish it, the Breitkopf & Härtel publishing house finally commissioned Christian Schreiber to produce a less dramatic, more didactically oriented new text, to which Beethoven forcefully objected. He did not think Huber’s original wording was perfect, either, but—typically for his vocal music—he had created such a close relationship between text and music that any alternative text seemed impossible to him (cf. Beethoven’s “Letters to the Publisher” of 23 August 1811, BGA 519, and 28 January 1812, BGA 545). The publishers overrode Beethoven’s objections, however, and published the score and the piano reduction in 1811 with the new text and without the scene indications.

A few years after his first oratorio, in 1807, Beethoven composed his first large orchestral mass: the Mass in C Major, op. 86, commissioned by Prince Nikolaus II of Esterházy, who had assiduously presented a large orchestral mass in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt every year since 1796 on the politically significant Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary (12 September), which was also his wife’s name day. (Most of Joseph Haydn’s late masses, some of which Beethoven studied when working on his own setting, were written for the same occasion, as were several of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s masses.) Although its sponsor did not care for the piece, it is regarded today as one of the key works of a Beethoven who was capable not just of loud and heroic tones, as the critics so often stress, but also of gentle and lyrical ones. Once again the mass was published by Breitkopf & Härtel (1812), not only with the Latin mass text, but also—this time at Beethoven’s suggestion—with a second, German, text (again by Christian Schreiber), so that it could also be performed in the concert hall without difficulty. Beethoven himself programmed the Gloria and the Sanctus of this Mass (titled “Hymns,” although with Latin text) in his major Akademie on 22 December 1808, in the Theater an der Wien, at which his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were also premiered. In the Sixth, the so-called Pastoral Symphony, op. 68, written in 1807–1808, Beethoven’s original heading of the final movement (“Shepherds’ Song: Feelings of Beneficence and Gratitude to God after the Storm”) makes it clear that the relationship of human beings to both the wrathful God (fourth movement: storm) and the forgiving God (fifth and last movement) was one of the leading ideas in the conception of this symphony. A similar suggestion has been made for the Fifth Symphony, which is plainly more “heroic” in tone.

Late Beethoven.

The fact that Beethoven struggled intensely with the question of living a Christian life is demonstrated by the countless annotations in his personal copy of the two-volume Betrachtungen über die Werke Gottes im Reiche der Natur und der Vorsehung auf Alle Tage des Jahres (Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature and Providence for Every Day of the Year), by the evangelical theologian and pastor Christoph Christian Sturm (1740–1786). His intensive reading of Sturm’s writings, especially in 1816, occurred during a fundamental crisis in his life and creative work that began around 1812, which eventually led to the stylistically idiosyncratic works of his final decades—in the so-called late style. Copies and paraphrases of philosophical and religious passages in Beethoven’s diary, begun in 1812, as well as statements in the conversation books that he began using in 1818, make it clear that he was now wrestling with questions of transcendence in general, and no longer just with the Christian deity. Among other things, he even made extracts from ancient Egyptian and ancient Indian (Brahmanic) writings, which were fashionable at the time in Freemason circles in Vienna, among others. The church as an institution, along with its representatives, was on the other hand often the target of his derision.

The great religious masterpiece of Beethoven’s late period is the Missa Solemnis, op. 123 (1819–1823). It was intended for the ordination ceremonies of his patron, pupil, and friend of many years, Archduke Rudolph, as archbishop of Olmütz on 9 March 1820, but was nowhere near complete in time for the occasion. Because of its length, the work was frequently performed in the concert hall even in the nineteenth century, although it also received liturgical performances, especially in the regions of southern Germany and Austria. In his conception of the work, Beethoven began from the premise of giving expression to the words in his music in a very precise and vivid, almost madrigalesque manner. In preparation, he undertook an intensive study of the text of the Ordinary of the Mass, studied a German translation, and looked up the meanings of individual Latin words and their long and short syllables in his school dictionary (Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, Mus. MS autograph 35, 25; the source reflects, incidentally, Beethoven’s meager knowledge of Latin).

This effort to create a new kind of text setting is evident in Beethoven’s composition—for one thing, in the frequency with which the musical rhythms emulate the prosody of the words (such as “Creeeedo, creeeedo” or “deeeeeescendit”)—but also, and at least as significantly, with respect to the content. The “Et incarnatus” is famous for this; in it, Beethoven wraps the inconceivable mystery of the Incarnation in remote tonalities and soundscapes. For Beethoven, the guiding idea for the structure of the piece was apparently to contrast starkly the unattainable sphere of the divine with the human, earthly realm, and thereby to express tangibly the idea that humans can attain, at best, only a stirring sense of the presence of God, who is above the stars. God is depicted with long, sustained (sometimes lustrously pulsing) sonorities with heavy instrumentation, and thus only tenuously connected to the earthly sphere, so that the unbridgeable gap between the two realms is made evident to the listener. Beethoven had already tested this type of striking musical symbol in earlier, smaller works with religious content and further perfected it in the Ninth Symphony.

These individual conceptual procedures make it clear that Beethoven was trying to convey musically his own understanding of the meaning of the text of the Mass, as the theologian Johann Michael Sailer, whom Beethoven appreciated, put it—that believers should not simply parrot the prayers from the liturgy, but rather try to penetrate intellectually their spiritual meaning. Sailer’s position also recalls the thinking on church music in Bonn’s Enlightenment circles, as set out in an essay by Ferdinand d’Antoine (“Wie muß die Kirchenmusik beschaffen seyn, wenn sie zur Andacht erheben soll” [How Church Music Should Be Written, When It Is Intended to Encourage Devotion], in Beiträge zur Ausbreitung nützlicher Kenntnisse, part 41, Bonn 1785).

Beethoven’s interest in the musical expression of the relationship between man and God is also obvious in several of his late songs (An die Hoffnung, “Ob ein Gott sei” [Is There a God], second setting, op. 94, 1815; Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, “Wenn die Sonne niedersinket” [When the Sun Sets], WoO 150, 1820), as well as in the Ninth Symphony, op. 125 (fourth movement: the inclusion of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy with soloists and chorus, with lines such as “World, do you sense the Creator? Seek him above the canopy of the stars! He must dwell above the stars”). Also suggesting a spiritual content is the slow movement from the late string quartet, op. 132, titled “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Divinity.” In this movement, as in the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven himself provides a hint that he conceived of his instrumental compositions not just as abstract music but consciously desired to express content, meanings, and even “states of the soul” (Seelenzustände) that, sure enough, can rarely be concretely deciphered. Again and again in the later works, the listener who is attuned to such notions gets the feeling that questions of the transcendent—and of humanity’s relation to it—arise repeatedly.

In his later years Beethoven also had plans, on various occasions, to compose other oratorios (especially Saul und David [Saul and David] and Sauls Tod [The Death of Saul] on texts by Christoph Kuffner, 1826), other masses, and possibly even a requiem, and to set texts from the mass proper. None of these was realized, however, and only preliminary sketches have survived.

The number of Beethoven’s Bible-related text settings is not large; even the total of other spiritual or liturgical works is limited. This fact might seem incongruous in view of what is known of Beethoven’s lifelong preoccupation with questions about how to live a morally exemplary life, about a spiritual orientation in the face of his tragic personal fate, and about the nature of God or of transcendence. This putative contradiction between biography and work may be resolved by recognizing that, well into the nineteenth century, the concept of work as autobiography did not really exist. Musical compositions were primarily written to fulfill specific external demands. Occasions for the composition of vocal music of a spiritual nature simply did not arise often in Beethoven’s working life.



  • Biermann, Joanna Cobb. “Cyclical Ordering in Beethoven’s Gellert Lieder, Op. 48: A New Source.” Beethoven Forum 11, no. 2 (2004): 162–180.
  • Ito, John Paul. “Spiritual Narratives in Beethoven’s Quartet, Op. 132.” Journal of Musicology 30 (2013): 330–368.
  • Ito, John Paul. “Johann Michael Sailer and Beethoven.” Bonner Beethoven-Studien 11 (2014): 83–91.
  • Knapp, Raymond. “A Tale of Two Symphonies: Converging Narratives of Divine Reconciliation in Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 53, no. 2 (2000): 291–343.
  • Kross, Siegfried. “Beethoven und die rheinisch-katholische Aufklärung.” In Beethoven, Mensch seiner Zeit, edited by Siegfried Kross, pp. 9–36. Bonn, Germany: Röhrscheid, 1980.
  • Lodes, Birgit. “ ‘When I try, now and then, to give musical form to my turbulent feelings. … ’ The Human and the Divine in the Gloria of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.” Beethoven Forum 6 (1998): 143–179.
  • Lodes, Birgit. “Probing the Sacred Genres: Beethoven’s Religious Songs, Oratorio and Masses.” In The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, edited by Glenn Stanley, pp. 218–236. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Lodes, Birgit. “ ‘So träumte mir, ich reiste … nach Indien’: Temporality and Mythology in Op. 127/I.” In The String Quartets of Beethoven, edited by William Kinderman, pp. 168–213. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lodes, Birgit. “ ‘In der ungeheuern Weite’: Beethoven und die Ahnung des Göttlichen in Meeres Stille und Glückliche Fahrt, Missa solemnis und Neunter Symphonie.” In Beethoven und der Wiener Kongress (1814/15). Schriften zur Beethoven-Forschung 26. Bonn, Germany: Verlag Beethoven-Haus, 2015.
  • Lodes, Birgit, and Armin Raab, eds. Beethovens Vokalmusik und Bühnenwerke. Laaber, Germany: Laaber Verlag, 2014. See especially the articles by Joanna Cobb Biermann (“Das Oratorium Christus am Ölberge,” pp. 135–145) and Wolfgang Rathert (“Beethovens Kirchenmusik im geistesgeschichtlichen Kontext,” pp. 155–172 and idem, “Die Messen,” pp. 173–218).
  • McGrann, Jeremiah W. “Beethoven’s Mass in C, Opus 86: Genesis and Compositional Background.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1991.
  • McGrann, Jeremiah W. “Der Hintergrund zu Beethovens Messen.” Bonner Beethoven-Studien 3 (2003): 119–138.
  • Mühlenweg, Anja. “Ludwig van Beethoven ‘Christus am Ölberge’ op. 85. Studien zur Entstehungs- und Überlieferungsgeschichte.” PhD Diss., University of Würzburg, 2004.
  • Schmidt-Görg, Joseph. “Ein neuer Fund in den Skizzenbüchern Beethovens: Die Lamentationen des Propheten Jeremias.” Beethoven-Jahrbuch 3 (1957/1958): 107–110.
  • Solomon, Maynard. “Beethoven: The Quest for Faith.” Beethoven-Jahrbuch 10 (1983): 101–119.
  • Solomon, Maynard. Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Ullrich, Hermann. “Ludwig van Beethovens letzte Oratorienpläne. Eine Studie.” Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 33 (1982): 21–47.
  • Valder-Knetchges, Claudia. Die Kirchenmusik Andrea Luchesis (1741–1801): Studien zu Leben und Werk des letzten kurkölnischen Hofkapellmeisters. Berlin: Merseburger, 1983.
  • Wegeler, Franz Gerhard, and Ferdinand Ries. Remembering Beethoven. Translated by Frederick Noonan. London: André Deutsch, 1988.
  • Will, Richard. “Time, Morality, and Humanity in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 50 (1997): 271–329.
  • Witcombe, Charles C. “Beethoven’s Markings in Christoph Christian Sturm’s ‘Reflections on the works of god in the realm of nature and providence for every day of the year.’ ” Beethoven Journal 18 (2003): 10–23.

Birgit Lodes Translated from the German by Johanna M. Baboukis