In 2005 I began to research the spiritual lives of the great composers for the narratives of our concerts in Edinburgh, but I did not know where to start. I prayed for guidance and typed these words on my computer: Spiritual lives of the great composers. Lo and behold, a book appeared with that very title! After sending off for that book and reading it, this has now become the basis of the material about the composers’ spiritual lives in our concerts. My thanks go to the author, Patrick Kavanaugh, who has done the work already! The following excerpts from the famous composers are mostly taken from his work, The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Sparrow Press, USA, © 1992.
When we look at the following quotes from the composers we must also understand that although they professed to be Christian they were also human beings with faults and weaknesses. Some of them like Mendelssohn, Bach and Bruckner continued in a strong Christian faith throughout their lives, whereas others like Handel encountered Christ later in life; others like Liszt had deep struggles with sexual sins, and yet at the same time were deeply religious, and others like Wagner accepted Christ a few years before he died but wrestled with accepting the whole Bible. Many were Roman Catholics and some were Protestants, but all of them acknowledged that their musical inspiration came from God and the Bible, and they believed in the essential Christian doctrines.
I have printed out a selection of quotations from the great composers below:
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
‘A servant of Handel swings the door open to Handel’s room. The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” Handel had just finished writing a movement, which would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.’
Handel became a ransomer for other debtors in prison. One of his biographers declared:
Messiah… has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan… more than any other single musical production in this or any country.
Lord Kinnoul once congratulated him on his fine performance, to which Handel replied:
My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.
Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven all considered Handel the greatest composer ever and they said:
He is the master of us all.”
Haydn about Handel
Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.
Beethoven about Handel
And when he referred to an edition of Handel’s works he said:
“There is the truth.”
[Handel] is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.”
(Bach about Handel)
To which Mozart exclaimed:
Truly, I would say the same myself if I were permitted to put in a word.
But what was Handel’s response to all this adulation? In 1759, whilst receiving a rapturous ovation after his last performance he cried out:
Not from me… but from Heaven… comes all.” And as he was nearly blind and ailing he expressed his desire that he would die on Good Friday “in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour, on the day of His resurrection”. He died on Easter Saturday.
Handel is buried in the graveyard of Westminster Abbey next to another Christian, the writer, Charles Dickens. Above his grave are the words: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
Music’s only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.
Bach frequently initialled his blank manuscript pages with the marking, ‘J.J.’ (‘Help me, Jesus’) or I.N.J. (‘In the name of Jesus’).
At the manuscript end, Bach routinely initialled the letters S.D.G. (‘Soli Deo Gloria’, ‘To God alone, the glory’).
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully.
I prayed… that an infinite God would surely have mercy on His finite creature, pardoning dust for being dust. These thoughts cheered me up. I experienced a sure joy so confident that as I wished to express the words of the prayer, I could not express my joy, but gave vent to my happy spirits and wrote the above Miserere, Allegro.
Once, late in life, when Haydn met a devotee who heaped praise upon him, Haydn cut him off.
“Do not speak so to me. You see only a man granted talent and a good heart.”
I know that God has favoured me, and recognize it thankfully. I also believe that I have done my duty and have been of use to the world through my works. Let others do the same!
Never was I so devout as when I composed The Creation. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me strength for my work….When I was working on The Creation I felt so impregnated with Divine certainty, that before sitting down to the piano, I would quietly and confidently pray to God to grant me the talent that was needed to praise Him worthily.
Seated at the keyboard, Haydn searched for an idea, a theme, or an image to set to music.
“If it soon comes without much difficulty, it expands,” Haydn once said.
“But if it does not make progress, I try to find out if I have erred in some way or other, thereby forfeiting grace; and I pray for mercy until I feel that I am forgiven.”
Not from me – from there [heaven], above, comes everything!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
God is ever before my eyes. I realize His omnipotence and I fear His anger; but I also recognize His love, His compassion, and His tenderness towards His creatures.
Of his compositions he once shared his secret:
“I prayed to God for His mercy that all might go well, to His greater glory, and the symphony began.”
A contemporary who knew him well said of his masterpiece, Requiem:
“Mozart has disclosed his whole inner being in this one sacred work, and who can fail to be affected by the fervour of devotion and holy transport which streams from it? His Requiem is unquestionably the highest and best that modern art has to offer for sacred worship.”
“Let us put our trust in God and console ourselves with the thought that all is well, if it is in accordance with the will of the Almighty, as He knows best what is profitable and beneficial to our temporal happiness and our eternal salvation.”
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
I will place all my confidence in your eternal goodness, O God! My soul shall rejoice in Thee, immutable Being. Be my rock, my light, forever my trust.
Nothing higher exists than to approach God more than other people and from that to extend His glory among humanity.
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.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Pray to God that He may create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us.
‘A friend enters Mendelssohn’s study and sees his friend engrossed in the Bible. Mendelssohn glances up at his visitor, showing no signs of surprise and offering no greeting. “Listen,” he says, and excitedly begins to read aloud: “And behold, the Lord passed by….” He reads on and on, his voice rising in pitch as the drama of the passage overwhelms him. The visitor recognises the story of Elijah, when suddenly the reading stops. “Would not that be splendid for an oratorio?” asked Felix Mendelssohn, setting the Bible on his desk and searching his friend’s face for a reaction. Thus the greatest oratorio of the nineteenth century was conceived.’
I believe I found today, in that old chapel, the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.” (Mendelssohn in a letter to his parents in 1829 after his visit to Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh). The Scotch Symphony was indeed a direct result of this visit, as was also the Hebrides overture.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
I pray to God that He may powerfully illumine your heart through His faith and His love. You may scoff at this feeling as bitterly as you like. I cannot fail to see and desire in it the only salvation. Through Christ alone, through resigned suffering in God, salvation and rescue come to us.
The ardent longing for the Cross, and the elevation of the Cross have always been my true, my innermost vocation.
Music’s purpose is
“to ennoble, to comfort, to purify man, to bless and praise God.”
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
The more one separates oneself from the canons of the Christian church, the further one distances oneself from the truth.
Only God can create. I make music from music.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
I will now tell you and your young friend here about my method of communicating with the Infinite, for all truly inspired ideas come from God. Beethoven, who was my ideal, was well aware of this. When I feel the urge, I begin by appealing straight to my Maker…. Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eyes, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration.
You see, the powers from which all truly great composers like Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Beethoven drew their inspirations is the same power that enabled Jesus to do his miracles. I know several young composers who are atheists. I have read their scores, and I assure you, Joseph, that they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral. The great Nazarene (Jesus) knew that law also, and He proclaimed it in John 15:4, ‘The branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine.’ No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer.”
Brahms to a journalist in 1896
People do not even know that we North Germans long for the Bible every day and do not let a day go by without it. In my study I can lay my hand on my Bible even in the dark.
Franz Peter Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic, his faith deepened over the years after a wild youth. He deplored music that he said
“engenders in people not love but madness: which rouses them to scornful laughter instead of lifting their thoughts to God.”
In one of his letters he explodes with revulsion at the sight of a cross and a chapel that were raised to commemorate a bloody battle:
These sacred symbols are intended partly to commemorate and partly to expiate a horrible crime. Oh, dear Christ, over how many deeds of shame must Thou lend Thy countenance? Of Him who in Himself is the most convincing testimony to our human wickedness, they erect an image everywhere in wood and stone, as much as to say, “See, here, we have trampled under our profane feet the most perfect creation of the great God. What shall hinder us then in annihilating easily the rest of ordinary mankind.
Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904)
Dvorak made famous for his New World Symphony, also wrote many pieces influenced by Christianity. Once he wrote about his Mass in D Major:
“Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not – could not produce anything like this. Have we not examples enough in Beethoven, Bach, Raphael and many others!”
As a child he was once asked to kneel for prayer. He responded,
“I like praying there at the window when I look out on the green and at the sky.”
Dvorak told us of his secret:
“I study with the birds, flowers, God and myself.”
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Wagner tends to be known as somebody who was not a Christian and a friend of the famous atheist, Nietzsche. However, at the age of 36 he shocked friends by saying that he had started the work Jesus of Nazareth because he had been
“inspired by a study of the Gospels”. This began a spiritual quest which led to a professed faith in Christ in 1876. Nietzsche rejected him and wrote an article, The Fall of Wagner, in which he stated:
“Incredible, Wagner has turned pious… Richard Wagner, apparently the most complete of victors, fell suddenly, helpless and broken, before the Christian cross.’
In 1880 Wagner wrote an article called Religion and Art in which he referred to Jesus Christ as
“the all-loving Saviour” who was
“born to suffer and die for mankind, redeeming the human race through His blood”. But at the same time he couldn’t accept much of the Old Testament and had some unorthodox views.
Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896)
They want me to write in a different way. I could, but I must not. Out of thousands I was given this talent by God, only I. Sometime I will have to give account of myself. How would the Father in Heaven judge me if I followed others and not Him?
Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)
I’m a composer because I love music, and a Christian because I believe.
I’ve imposed the truths of the Faith on the concert room.
What do I believe? That doesn’t take long to say and in it everything is said at once: I believe in God. And because I believe in God, I believe likewise in the Holy Trinity and in the Holy Spirit (to whom I’ve dedicated my ‘Messe de la Pentecôte’), and in the Son, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ (to whom I’ve dedicated a large part of my works.)