Composition and Common Grace

Schroeder and Beethoven by Steven Guzzardi
Schroeder and Beethoven by Steven Guzzardi

A friend sent me this nice little piece from the Evening Standard on the legacy of Beethoven, penned by the brilliant classical pianist James Rhodes. He argues that,

Beethoven is the most performed, revered composer there is. He eclipses every other composer and his shadow falls over every music manuscript in the world.  And if there were even a hint of injustice or hyperbole in that fact I would take issue with it. But the truth is, healthy or not (and I myself don’t hesitate to say healthy), Beethoven somehow achieved musical enlightenment and it is quite simply a fact of life that he is and always will be the benchmark, the prophet and the absolute peak of compositional genius for everyone else to aspire to.

I think that’s hard to disagree with. Even though Beethoven is not my favourite of composers, I would struggle to think of anyone who has made a greater contribution to the development of classical music.

But what I found most interesting was the reason for Rhodes’ love of Beethoven. He writes:

Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are without question the holy trinity of music. But there is one reason alone that makes Beethoven The One, and it is his humanity. Bach and Mozart had gifts that came straight from God. I’m an unbeliever, but there is simply no other possible explanation for the depth of genius they displayed. What Bach and Mozart did with music is quite literally beyond any human comprehension.

Beethoven, on the other hand, was on his own. Every note was sweated over, every theme worked on tirelessly and chiselled into immortality. The manuscripts of Bach and Mozart look spotless next to the messy, crossed-out, almost indecipherable madness of Beethoven’s. While Mozart hurled symphonies on to paper as fast as he could write, barely without correction, Beethoven stewed and fought and wrestled and argued and raged until he forced what he was looking for out and onto the page.

I found this quote interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the admission that there is something apparently undeniable about the God-given nature of Bach and Mozart’s talents. I don’t know how serious or flippant Rhodes was being at this point, but I certainly do know what he means. There are moments where the sheer perfection of a piece of art – be it music, painting, performance, architecture, whatever – creates an almost transcendent experience and leaves you wondering, at least for a fleeting second or two, “have I just experienced something other worldly? And what are the implications of that?”

Those fleeting thoughts are worth listening to. And although, in the end, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the effectiveness of his argument, Francis Spufford’s attempt to build up an argument from aesthetic experience to God-belief is an interesting exercise. Rhodes, and others who find certain artistic expressions to be beyond human comprehension, might find Unapologetic an interesting read.

Second, the idea that achieving art without divine assistance is better than achieving it with. I know that’s not exactly what Rhodes is saying, but he does want to draw a distinction between the seemingly effortless music of Bach and Mozart and the hard-worked compositions of Beethoven. Divine assistance is a head start, the absence of which was an obstacle that Beethoven valiantly overcame.

Quite apart from the religious ideas, this raises interesting aesthetic-philosophical questions. Can the worth of art be at all measured by the effort expended upon it? If someone has less innate talent, but works doubly hard, is their art worth more respect than that of the infuriatingly gifted composer who seems to sneeze out symphonies without once breaking into sweat?

Permit the religious element, and the question might be: is the atheist at a disadvantage? Or does the handicap of not having divine assistance mean that the unbeliever is able to achieve greater things, since they can claim 100% responsibility for their work?

But thirdly – and this somewhat ties together my first and second thoughts – the article reminded me of the beauty of Common Grace.

Common Grace is the theological idea that God extends underserved grace to all of mankind without distinction. Whether or not one believes in God, we are all the recipients of certain blessings: a conscience, providential care, “life breath and everything” as Paul puts it in Acts 17.

One aspect of Common Grace is the skills that God bestows on people, irrespective of their faith position. Our lives have been improved by many technological, medical or philosophical advances, which have had their origins in the thoughts and work of those who do not believe in God. But the doctrine of Common Grace says that those blessings are all gifts from God anyway, whether or not their possessors have recognised them as such.

If this doctrine is true, then Beethoven’s gift was no less God-given than that of Mozart or Bach. The blood, sweat and tears he spilled forth in the composition of his great works were ultimately blood, sweat and tears that had been handed to him by his Creator.

Which is why many people could have the same quasi-religious experience whilst listening to a Beethoven piece as they could listening to Bach or Mozart. There are moments in a Beethoven symphony that might just as easily make you ponder the existence of the divine because, whether the composer believed it or not, the ability to arrange notes with such precision finds its origin in the Creator God.

Rhodes writes,

Before Beethoven, composers worked for the glory of God.  Or else they wrote on bended knee for wealthy courts and egotistical patrons. Beethoven kicked down the doors of the aristocratic world and made himself at home. He wrote for himself alone.

And yet, there is a sense in which the art of Beethoven glorifies God no less than that of Mozart. Bach would sign his manuscripts Sola Dei Gloria – “Glory to God alone” indicating his sense of indebtedness and his commitment to honour his Creator. But if, as the doctrine of common grace suggests, all gifts and abilities find their root in God, is it not the case that Beethoven’s work screams Sola Dei Gloria, even if his pen and his lips didn’t?

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