Beethoven’s spirituality: a conversation with Sir James MacMillan

December 18, 2020 | 12:14 am

It’s the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. In this episode of Holy Smoke, Damian Thompson is joined by his fellow composer Sir James MacMillan to discuss a side of Beethoven that the postmodern artistic establishment prefers to ignore: his unwavering faith in God and the surprisingly strict morality that arose from it.

Beethoven may not have gone to Mass very often, but before he died he asked to see a priest and during years of intense suffering composed one of the greatest of all settings of the liturgy, the Missa Solemnis. He was more proud of this masterpiece than of any of his symphonies; before he wrote it he meticulously researched the Latin text, and he also plunged into a study of the polyphonic masters of the 16th century.

Sir James MacMillan is currently presenting a Radio 4 series on the religious faith of four composers: Tallis, Wagner, Elgar and Bernstein. If the BBC has the good sense to make another season, then he’s planning to do a programme on Beethoven. But you don’t have to wait to hear his fascinating reflections on the great man: just listen to this exhilarating episode of Holy Smoke.


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