Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven's Religious Beliefs
from his Letters & Notebooks

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: After writing the poem Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and compiling the Notes to the poem, I wish to document the Beethoven quotes cited. I have consulted books on Beethoven at Los Altos Library and Stanford's Music Library. Below are typed passages on Beethoven's philosophical and religious beliefs from these books for my personal reference. Additional web links are included for those interested in studying more about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and his work.

Beethoven's Religious Beliefs:
Quotes from Books in Stanford's Music Library

The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven
Edited by Glenn Stanley
Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 25

Ch. 2 "Beethoven at work: musical activist and thinker"
By Glenn Stanley

In the summer and fall of 1809, when Beethoven suffered physical distress and mental anguish from the French bombardment and occupation of Vienna and the temporary collapse of his cultural and social world, he seems to have been possessed by a great need for artistic and intellectual sustenance. Repeatedly pressing Breitkopf & Hartel for scores and literary works, he can't get enough: J.S. and Emmanuel Bach, Handel's Messiah, Mozart's Requiem, Haydn's Masses-- no, everything by Mozart and Haydn, Goethe and Schiller-- all that can be had, Wieland, Ossian, Euripides. Beethoven made such requests throughout his life, though rarely with such breathless intensity. One of these letters is as self-reflective as it is self-aggrandizing:
    You will not easily find an essay that is too learned for me; although I don't claim to be genuinely learned, I have tried since I was a child, to grasp the spirit of the best and wisest [minds] of every age. Shame on the artist who does not consider it his duty to achieve at least so much.
[Ludwig van Beethoven: Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe II, no. 408 (1997-98);
Emily Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, I, no. 228 (1961)]


Walter J. Turner, Beethoven: The Search for Reality
Books for Library Press, Freeport, NY, 1927, pp. 103-105

Oriental literature in the translations of Herder and Von Hammer, attracted Beethoven and he made many transcriptions in his own handwriting from their translations. Among them is the following:
    God is incorporeal; since He is invisible He can have no form, but from what we see in His works we may know that He is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent— the mighty one is He who is free from all desire; He alone; there is none greater than He.
    Brahma; his spirit is existent in itself. He, the mighty one, is present in every part of space— his omniscience dwells alone by itself and the conception of him comprehends every other one; of all comprehensive attributes that of omniscience is the greatest. For it there is no threefold existence. It is independent of everything. O God, thou art the true, eternal, blessed, immutable light of all times and all spaces. Thy wisdom embraces thousands upon thousands of laws, and yet thou dost always act freely and for thy honour. Thou wert before all that we revere. To Thee be praise and adoration. Thou alone art the truly blessed one (Bhagavan); Thou, the essence of all laws, the image of all wisdom, present throughout the universe. Thou sustainest all things. Sun, Ether, Brahma.

Schiller, in an essay on Die Sendung Moses, has the following passage:
    The epoptae (Egyptian priests) recognised a single, highest principle of all things, a primeval force... the essence of all essences which was the same as the Demiurgos of the Greek philosophers. There is nothing more elevating than the simple grandeur with which they speak of the creator of the universe. In order to distinguish him more emphatically they gave him no name. A name, they said, is only for pointing a difference; he who is the only has no need of a name, for there is no one with whom he can be confounded. Under an ancient monument of Isis were to be read the words: "I AM THAT WHICH IS," and upon a pillar at Sais a strange primitive inscription: "I AM ALL THAT IS, THAT WAS, THAT WILL BE; NO MORTAL MAN HAS EVER LIFTED MY VEIL." No one was permitted to enter the Temple of Serpis who did not bear upon his breast or forehead the name Iao, or I-ha-ho, a name similar in sound to the Hebrew Jehovah, and most probably of the same meaning; and no name was uttered with greater reverence in Egypt than this name Iao. In the hymn which the Hierophant, or Guardian of the Santuary sang to the candidate for initiation this was the first division in the instruction concerning the nature of the divinity: "HE IS ONLY AND SOLELY OF HIMSELF, AND TO THIS ONLY ONE ALL THINGS OWE THEIR EXISTENCE."

The sentences in the above extract which are printed in capital letters were copied by Beethoven with his own hand and he kept them framed under glass always before him on his writing table. Another of his extract is:
    "The moral law in us and the starry heavens above us. Kant!!!"

Beethoven was brought up as a Catholic, but he was not orthodox. Schindler says that it was one of his peculiarities that he never spoke on religious topics, or on the dogmas of the various christian churches, nor gave his opinions about them. He was accustomed to writing down short prayers in moments of emotional stress. The following is one of the best known:
    Spirit of Spirits, who spreading Thyself through all space and through endless time, art raised high above all limits of upward struggling thought, from chaos didst Thou command eternal order to arise. Before the worlds were Thou wast and before systems rolled below and above us. Before the earth swan in heavenly ether Thou alone wast, until through Thy creating love that which was not sprang into being, and gratefully sang praises to Thee. What moved Thee to manifest Thy power and boundless goodness? What brilliant light directed Thy power? Wisdom beyond measure! How was it first manifested? Oh, direct my mind! Oh raise it up from this grievous depth.


John Crabbe, Beethoven's Empire of the Mind
Lovell Baines Print Ltd., Newbury, Berkshirem UK, 1982, pp. 79, 104-105

Apart from the dictionaries and books on travel and discovery, the personal library of 200-300 volumes left at his death included a considerable number of religious and speculative texts (most, alas, not named for posterity) and had a general emphasis on poetical works and the classics. There was a well-thumbed trinity of Homer, Plato and Plutarch, the last of these perhaps symbolising for Beethoven the moral element in history; while he had underlined, copied or otherwise specially marked over fifty passages in Homer's Odyssey, which he preferred to the more mundane Iliad. He was acquainted with Horace, Pliny, Ovid, Cicero, Euripides, Aeschyus, Aristotle, Sophocles, Quintilian, Boethius, Tacitus, Lucian and Xenophon— and also Ossian in the writings misleadingly ascribed to that ancient Celt by the Scot James Macpherson. (p. 79)
    Beethoven loved the countryside and was forever inclined to wander alone in places of natural beauty, and to be triggered into a contemplative mood by what he saw. Sometimes he would feel free enough to relate his ideas to a companion, as when he once walked in a partly tamed but romantically beautiful landscape with Johann Stumpff, the man who was destined to brighten the last weeks of Beethoven's life by delivering to him the complete works of Handel. Beethoven sat on a mound and preached a small sermon to his friend, which Stumpff related later in slightly decorative but still recognisably Beethoven language:
    Here, surrounded by the products of Nature, often I sit for hours, while my senses feast upon the spectacle of the conceiving and multiplying children of Nature. Here the majestic sun is not concealed by any dirty roof made by human hands, here the blue sky is my sublime roof. When in the evening I contemplate the sky in wonder and the host of luminus bodies continually revolving within their orbits, suns or earths by name, then my spirit rises beyond thes constellations so many millions of miles away to the primeval source from which all creation flows and from which new creations shall flow eternally... Yes, it must come from above, that which strikes the heart; otherwise it's nothing but notes, body without spirit, isn't that so? (p. 104)

    Woods and trees especially provided him with that cosmic echo, at times transporting him into exalted moods of an almost mystical intensity: the trance-like state of mind which he had learned from Frau von Breuning to call 'raptus' or 'rapture'. Thus in the autumn of 1812 he jotted on some music paper:
    Almighty One in the woods I am blessed... Every tree speaks through Thee O God! What glory in the woodland. On the heights is peace, peace to serve Him.

And again in the summer of 1814, relaxing at Baden:
    My miserable hearing does not trouble me here. In the country it seems as if every tree said to me: 'Holy! Holy!— Who can give complete expression to the ecstasy of the woods! O, the sweet stillness of the woods!

In such utterances Beethoven expresses the sentiments underlying Schelling's Nature Philosophy: an all-pervasive unity of nature and spirit with pantheistic overtones. (p. 105)


Barry Cooper (Ed.), The Beethoven Compendium
Thames & Hudson, London, 1991, pp. 142-146

Philosophical ideas: ethics and art
Beethoven was no philosopher, but he was very interested in the writings of some of the great philosophers, both ancient and recent, European and oriental. 'Socrates and Jesus were my models', he wrote in 1818 (Köhler, 1968, i.211); and his interest went back to his early years: 'I have tried since childhood to understand the meaning of the better and wiser people of every age' (Letter 228). He read widely and often underlined or copied down philosophical and proverbial sayings he came across; some were even set to music in the form of canons. A particularly large number of quotations, drawn from a great variety of sources, can be found in his Tagebuch of 1812-18.
    Philosophy might be described as a search for truth, and Beethoven frequently expressed his love of truth. To Goethe he wrote: 'I love truth more than anything' (Letter 1136), and both here and in another letter he expressly contradicts the saying of Terence: 'Veritas odium parit' ('Truth begets hatred'). He also once wrote out a quotation from Schiller's Don Carlos: 'Truth is within the reach of a wise man. Beauty can be discerned by a sensitive heart. They belong to one another.' (Letter 21) Most of the time this love of truth is borne out in his dealings with other people. (p. 142)
    To execute noble deeds it was essential in his mind to exert great effort and application in everything he did... The same attitude is reflected in his music, which compared with that of nearly all his contemporaries is learned, difficult, complex and noble. The great efforts he put into each composition in order to make it as excellent as possible are reflected in the extraordinary intensity of his sketching methods. To describe a work as 'difficult' was in hsi view 'the most lavish praise that can be bestowed', since 'what is difficult is also beautiful, good, great and so forth' (Letter 749). Music was for him a noble and elevating art and 'deserved to be studied' (Letter 767); 'only art and science can raise men to the level of gods' (Letter 376).
    If despite all efforts, the difficulties and hardships of life could not be overcome, then Beethoven regarded stoical acceptance of fate as the best course. 'Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation', he wrote in 1801 concerning his deafness (Letter 51); and in 1816 he jotted down similar sentiments in his Tagebuch: 'The chief characteristic of a distinguished man: endurance in adverse and harsh circumstances' (Solomon, 1982, no. 93a). (pp. 142-143)

The nature of Beethoven's belief in an all-powerful Divine Ruler was unorthodox and idiosyncratic but absolutely genuine. His image of God was not based solely on traditional Christian teaching but was drawn from a wide variety of influences including Classical antiquity and oriental religions. Although he was nominally a Roman Catholic his attitude to the church was lukewarm: we do not read of him going to church regularly, and only reluctantly did he agree to take the Last Rites shortly before his death.
    His perception of the Divinity is perhaps best summed up in the words from Schiller's An die Freude, which was a powerful influence on his thinking: 'Brothers, above the canopy of stars, there must dwell a dear Father.' This 'dear Father' was to be approached and addressed directly, without any intermediary such as the church or even Christ himself, who is rarely mentioned by Beethoven except as a suffering fellow-human: in one letter he suggests that his 'most gracious master' (Archduke Rudolph?) should 'follow the example of Christ, i.e. suffer' (Letter 1316), and it is the earthly suffering of Christ, rather than his divinity, which is emphasized in the oratorio Christus am Oelberge. (p. 145)
    The Father, however, was always held in a position of great awe, and Beethoven's perception of Him was in later years heavily influenced by oriental writings, which he became very interested in. Quoting from Georg Forster's translation of William Robertson's An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, Beethoven wrote in his Tagebuch in 1816 that God was 'eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent' (Solomon, 1982, entry 93b). Another relevant quotation was taken from Schiller's account of ancient Egypt in Die Sendung Moses, in which the author quotes three well-known sentences from ancient Egyptian religion: 'I am that which is.' 'I am all, what is, what was, what will be; no mortal man has ever lifted my veil.' 'He is only and solely of Himself, and to this only One all things owe their existence.' Beethoven copied these sentences and kept them, framed in glass, on his table.
    Elsewhere in his Tagebuch, Beethoven quoted at considerable length from translations by Johann Friedrich Kleuker and Georg Forster of various oriental writings about the nature of the Godhead (entries 61-65), such as the following, taken from a commentary on the Rig-Veda: 'Free from all passion and desire, that is the Mighty One. He, alone. None is greater than He.' Beethoven even seems to have formulated some sentences of his own in the same style: 'All things flowed clear and pure from God. If I afterwards became darkened through passion for evil, I returned after manifold repentance and purification to the first sublime, pure source, to the Godhead.' In these passages God is being perceived as timeless and immutable, and the repeated 'I am' in the Egyptian sayings recalls God's statement to Moses (Exodus 3:13-14): 'I am that I am', where God is beyond description in any terms less than Himself (Solomon, 1983, p. 115). (p. 146)


Gerhard von Breuning, Memories of Beethoven
Ed. Maynard Solomon, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 56

On this occasion Schindler showed me a considerable number of letters from Beethoven to him, in addition to letters from Meyerbeer, Humboldt, Unger, and others, as well as a package that Beethoven had tied up with twine and left behind, containing several printed opera librettos and manuscript librettos, as possible subjects for operas. Moreover I saw in Schindler's possession, from Beethoven's personal effects, The Odyssey and Sturm's Reflections on the Works of God in Nature, 2 vols. (Reutlingen, 1811), with many holograph marginal markings and notes by Beethoven, partially cut off by the binder while Beethoven was still alive.


Letters to Beethoven & Other Correspondences
Translated & Edited by Theodore Albrecht,
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NB, 1996

Letter 199: Joseph Hammer to Beethoven
Vienna, Ash Wednesday, February 8, 1815

Immediately after the departure of the Pers[isn] ambassador, I intended to submit to the censor copies of my Persian Singspiel and Indian Hirtenspiel [shepherd play], which were finished a few days before his arrival. Herr Zmeskall informed me today, however, of your wish to set [to music] an Indian chorus of religious character, and since my primary intention in the dramatically written poem was to portray the religious system of the Hindus as poetical and emotional, there might be something found in it that corresponds to you wish. Your great admirer, Hammer (Vol. 2, p. 60)


Web Links to Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven: Chronological Landmarks
  (Birth: Dec. 16, 1770 to Death: March 26, 1827)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Timeline
  (Bonn: 1770-1792; Vienna 1792-1827; Posthumous)
Classical Music Archives: Beethoven Biography
  (pictorial biography)
Ludwig van Beethoven: The Magnificent Master
  (Biography, Works List, Picture Gallery, Musicians on Beethoven)
Mad About Beethoven (By John Suchet)
  (Beethoven the master, People & places, The Music, Beethoven books)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Life and Work
  (Biography, Books, Music, Midi & MP3, Galleries, Love, Forum)
Beethoven-Haus Bonn
  (Museum visitors, Digital archives, Works & Sketches, Pictures)
Multimedia Beethoven Encyclopaedia
  (Composer, Fragments, Portraits, Symphonies, Sonata, Concertos)
The Beethoven Reference Site
  (Timeline, Picture Gallery, Anecdotes Who's Who, Works List)
Ludwig van Beethoven Website
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
  (Matt Boynick, Classical Music Pages)
Ludwig van Beethoven
  (Life, Works, Letters, Media)
Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies
  (San Jose State University)
A Post-Impressionistic View of Beethoven
  (By T. Carl Whitmer, Musical Quarterly, 1916, pp. 13-31)
The Works of Ludwig van Beethoven (By Simon Johnston)
  (Catalogue of Major Works: Opus #1-138)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Heiligenstadt Testament
  (Beethoven's suicide note, October 6, 1802)
Ludwig van Beethoven at Heiligenstadt
  (Beethoven at Heiligenstadt, Copy of Heiligenstadt Testament)
Heiligenstadt Testament
  (Facsimile of Heiligenstadt Testament, Translation, External links)
How did Beethoven earn his living between 1792 and 1801?
  (By Somnuk Phon Amnuaisuk)
Classical MIDI Connection: Ludwig van Beethoven
  (Overtures, Piano & Violin Concertos & Sonatas, Symphonies)

Web Links to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
Beethoven's Symphony #5
  (Wikipedia: History, Instrumentation, Form, Lore, Textual questions, Links)
Fate knocks: Beethoven's Fifth is still up for interpretation
  (By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 26, 2006)
Structural analysis of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  (Multimedia Beethoven Online Encyclopaedia)
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. The Destiny Symphony
  ("That's how destiny knocks on your door.")
Notes on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  (, June 9, 2006)
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  (Thierry Fischer conducts BBC National Orchestra of Wales)
Program notes for Beethoven's Symphony #5
  (Performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington, D.C.)
Review of Recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  (Classical Classics Notes by Peter Gutmann, 2001)
YouTube: Beethoven Symphony #5, 1st movement
  (Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra)
YouTube: Beethoven Symphony #5, 1st & 2nd movements
  (Herbert van Karajan conducts the Berlin Symphony Orchestra)

| Top of Page | Poem: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony | Notes to Poem |
| Eroica Symphony | Brahms Notes | Rachmaninoff Notes | Music Quotes |
| Poems 2009 | Enlightenment | Sages Directory | A-Z Portals | Home |

© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-28-2009)