Beethoven and Jesus
On Easter morning there was an orchestra on stage at each Redeemer service. For the past four years Redeemer Downtown has featured the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. This year, his Third Symphony, “Eroica,” framed our service: Prelude, Offertory and Postlude. Why do we choose him each year?
Leonard Bernstein describes something of our rationale:
“Form is only an empty word, a shell. Without this gift of inevitability; a composer can write a string of perfectly molded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form. Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness — that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note that succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms — leave them to the Tchaikovskys and the Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.”
Beethoven dedicated his “Eroica” Symphony “to the memory of a great man,” Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he initially admired before Napoleon betrayed his political ideals, crowned himself emperor and engulfed Europe in war for over a decade. The music itself reflects this admiration: it is noble as well as tragic and leads inexorably to a glorious finale. Its power and “rightness” is indeed beyond words, and provides a glimpse of Christ’s noble character, crucifixion, and triumphant resurrection. This wordless beauty is worthwhile as an end to itself, but it also has potent evangelistic power. As Tim Keller says in Evangelistic Worship (which is worth reading in its entirety):
“The power of art draws people to behold it. Good art bears its message into the soul through the imagination and begins to appeal to reason, for art makes ideas plausible. The quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power. In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful despite its artistically poor expression, and further, they usually have a personal relationship with the song leader and musicians. But any outsider who arrives not convinced of the truth and having no relationship to the music leaders will be bored or irritated by the poor offering. Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor aesthetics exclude. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. To say this positively, the attraction of good art will play a major part in drawing non-Christians. [emphasis mine].”
On Easter Sunday, Beethoven’s triumphant masterwork, inspired by the hero that failed, served as a reflection on the triumph of Jesus, our true hero. Napoleon himself is purported to have opined similarly near the end of his life, in exile after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo:
“I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”
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