The theology of Beethoven's Masses

Gene Paul Strayer, University of Pennsylvania


External evidence, such as letters and diaries, shows that in composing both of his settings of the Mass Beethoven was preoccupied with music as creative explication of a religious text--with music as theology. Internal evidence, such as his detailed use and expansion of eighteenth-century musical rhetoric, reveals that he explicated the text with exceptional thoroughness and creativity. Most studies of the Masses have focused on the descriptive details of Beethoven's exegesis and thus on superficial levels of musical structure. But analysis based on the implication-realization model of music developed by Leonard B. Meyer and Eugene Narmour demonstrates that Beethoven utilized lower-level detail to create higher-level structures that in turn serve exegetical ends. Musically, Beethoven was influenced by the traditions of the Viennese concerted Mass; theologically, by the blend of rationalism and pietism taught by Johann Michael Sailer and other Romantics of the Catholic Aufklarung. The Mass in C Major, Opus 86, both derives and departs from its Viennese antecedents: in duration and scoring, in the fugal writing, and in much of its tone-painting, it is relatively conventional; but in its evocation of ecclesiastical atmosphere, the independence of its orchestra, its tendency toward unorthodox tonal relationships, its dramaturgical character, the expansiveness of its metaphors, and its strongly personal exegesis of the text, it is decidedly unconventional. The Mass in D Major, Opus 123, is still more innovative: a monumental synthesis of theological imagination with the rhetoric and logic of the Classical symphony that Beethoven himself had helped to perfect. Musically, the monumentality of the work arises from its combination of durational magnitude, extraordinarily independent orchestra, exceptionally high vocal tessituras, great structural complexity, and high-level structural unity; theologically, it arises from the combination of rhetorical power with exegetical richness and originality at all levels of the musical structure. In both Masses Beethoven employs musical rhetoric not simply to support the text but to interpret it and to draw the listener into his own compelling vision of a reality that offers a way of interpreting life and the world.

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Recommended Citation

Strayer, Gene Paul, "The theology of Beethoven's Masses" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9125763.