Blog #389: Classical Music Composers and The Inspiration for Their Music: God

One of the interesting historical facts is that many Classical Music composers were also profoundly influenced by the Bible and were themselves Christians. This was brought to my mind as I started preparing to preach about King Ahaziah of Judah, whose mother was Athaliah, an evil woman who then killed the rest of her family and proclaimed herself Queen of Judah. What this usurper to the throne didn’t realize is that one of Ahaziah’s sons, Joash, had been hidden away, thus surviving the family massacre. At the right time, he was then presented by the Temple priests in Jerusalem to the Jewish public and proclaimed the rightful heir to the throne, and Athaliah was dethroned. It is a fascinating story but from my Bachelor’s Degree in Music days, I recalled a distant memory of the great composer Felix Mendelssohn having written an opera called “Athelie” which features a wonderful piece of music about this event. High School and University commencement marches commonly use this music (not knowing its history, of course) and so I commend it to your listening pleasure: War March of the Priests from the opera “Athelia” by Felix Mendelssohn

In any case, this wonderful music by Mendelssohn is a stirring reminder of the fact that many of the greatest Classical Music composers were Christians. In his article, “Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers” (published on August 20th, 2016 on the “Christian Heritage Edinburgh” website), author Paul James-Griffiths has printed a selection of quotations from the great composers which show their faith. He begins by stating, ‘Many were Roman Catholics and some were Protestants, but all of them acknowledged that their musical inspiration came from God and the Bible, and they believed in the essential Christian doctrines. I have printed out a selection of quotations from the great composers below:

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
‘A servant of Handel swings the door open to Handel’s room. The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” Handel had just finished writing a movement, which would take its place in history as the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Handel became a ransomer for other debtors in prison. One of his biographers declared: His great work, “Messiah”…has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan…more than any other single musical production in this or any country. But what was Handel’s response to all this adulation? In 1759, whilst receiving a rapturous ovation after his last performance he cried out: “Not from me… but from Heaven… comes all.” He expressed his desire that he would die on Good Friday “in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour, on the day of His resurrection”. He died on Easter Saturday. Handel is buried in the graveyard of Westminster Abbey. Above his grave are the words: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
“Music’s only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” Bach frequently initialled his blank manuscript pages with the marking, ‘J.J.’ (‘Help me, Jesus’) or I.N.J. (‘In the name of Jesus’). At each manuscript’s end, Bach routinely initialled the letters S.D.G. (‘Soli Deo Gloria’, ‘To God alone, the glory’).

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
“Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully. I prayed…that an infinite God would surely have mercy on His finite creature, pardoning dust for being dust. These thoughts cheered me up. I experienced a sure joy so confident that as I wished to express the words of the prayer, I could not express my joy, but gave vent to my happy spirits and wrote.

I know that God has favoured me, and recognize it thankfully. I also believe that I have done my duty and have been of use to the world through my works. Never was I so devout as when I composed “The Creation”. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me strength for my work. When I was working on “The Creation” I felt so impregnated with Divine certainty, that before sitting down to the piano, I would quietly and confidently pray to God to grant me the talent that was needed to praise Him worthily.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
“God is ever before my eyes. I realize His omnipotence and I fear His anger; but I also recognize His love, His compassion, and His tenderness towards His creatures.”

Of his compositions he once shared his secret: “I prayed to God for His mercy that all might go well, to His greater glory, and the symphony began.” A contemporary who knew him well said of his masterpiece, “Requiem”: “Mozart has disclosed his whole inner being in this one sacred work, and who can fail to be affected by the fervour of devotion and holy transport which streams from it? His “Requiem” is unquestionably the highest and best that modern art has to offer for sacred worship.” Mozart said: “Let us put our trust in God and console ourselves with the thought that all is well, if it is in accordance with the will of the Almighty, as He knows best what is profitable and beneficial to our temporal happiness and our eternal salvation.”

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
“I will place all my confidence in your eternal goodness, O God! My soul shall rejoice in Thee, immutable Being. Be my rock, my light, forever my trust. Nothing higher exists than to approach God more than other people and from that to extend His glory among humanity. It was not a fortuitous meeting of chordal atoms that made the world; if order and beauty are reflected in the constitution of the universe, then there is a God.”

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
“Pray to God that He may create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us.” A friend entered Mendelssohn’s study and sees his friend engrossed in the Bible. Mendelssohn glanced up at his visitor, showing no signs of surprise and offering no greeting. “Listen,” he says, and excitedly begins to read aloud: “And behold, the Lord passed by….” He reads on and on, his voice rising in pitch as the drama of the passage overwhelms him. The visitor recognises the story of Elijah, when suddenly the reading stops. “Would not that be splendid for an oratorio?” asked Felix Mendelssohn, setting the Bible on his desk and searching his friend’s face for a reaction. Thus, the greatest oratorio of the nineteenth century was conceived.’

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
“I pray to God that He may powerfully illumine your heart through His faith and His love. You may scoff at this feeling as bitterly as you like. I cannot fail to see and desire in it the only salvation. Through Christ alone, through resigned suffering in God, salvation and rescue come to us. The ardent longing for the Cross, and the elevation of the Cross have always been my true, my innermost vocation. Music’s purpose is “to ennoble, to comfort, to purify man, to bless and praise God.”

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
“The more one separates oneself from the canons of the Christian church, the further one distances oneself from the truth. Only God can create. I make music from music.”

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
“I will now tell you and your young friend here about my method of communicating with the Infinite, for all truly inspired ideas come from God. Beethoven, who was my ideal, was well aware of this. When I feel the urge, I begin by appealing straight to my Maker….Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eyes, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration. You see, the powers from which all truly great composers like Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Beethoven drew their inspirations is the same power that enabled Jesus to do his miracles. I know several young composers who are atheists. I have read their scores, and I assure you, Joseph, that they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral. The great Nazarene (Jesus) knew that law also, and He proclaimed it in John 15:4, ‘The branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine.’ No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer.”

In his article, Paul James-Griffiths goes on to quote, as proof of their Christian faith, the famous Classical Music composers Schubert, Dvorak, Wagner (who converted to Christianity at age 36), Bruckner, and Messiaen. So, the next time you are listening to a piece of Classical music, be sure to thank the Lord for His creative spirit at work within them (just as He is at work within us).

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