Heaven is one of those concepts that cannot be described in words; only through deeply inspired spiritual imagery can one even begin to evoke a picture of it. So powerful is the human desire to seek Heaven that whether one is religious or non-religious, one will be profoundly touched by the thought of Heaven sometime during the course of a lifetime. Such was the fate of the classical composers, individuals who devoted their lives to expressing the inexpressible. In discussing classical music written to bring Heaven to humanity, three masterworks immediately come to mind: Messiah by Handel, Symphony no. 9 by Beethoven, and the Dante Symphony by Liszt. Interestingly, while Handel and Liszt were openly Christian, Beethoven did not consider himself religious. But nevertheless, he eventually fell under the sway of the Eternal Glory, the power of which cannot be resisted.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): “Comfort ye My People” from Messiah (1742)
It was reported that after Handel completed Messiah, his servant found him in tears, claiming that he had seen the face of God. The German composer was raised a Protestant, thus his study of the Biblical Scriptures from childhood enabled him to take a truly holistic approach in his musical setting of the Messiah. The libretto (or text) of this oratorio ranges from the prophecy of the Christ announced by Isaiah (Old Testament), to the actual story of Jesus told in the Gospels, the evangelism to the world, and finally to the ultimate Judgement and the conquest of sin predicted in the Book of Revelation (New Testament). In “Comfort ye My People”, the first vocal number of the work, we hear the foretelling of the coming of Christ accompanied by gentle, pulsating chords. Although the sound of the divine prophesy is so powerful and chilling, at the same time we experience an unexplainable sense of serenity and comfort. This is the mystery of Messiah, a mystery which renders it timeless. It is no surprise then that more than two hundred years after Handel’s death, his masterpiece remains one of the most performed.
“Comfort ye My People”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmknWYFr6Xk
Messiah (Complete): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEy1ktHTPaM
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Finale “Ode to Joy” from Symphony no. 9 (1824)
Beethoven had a complicated relationship with religion. Never did he declare himself Christian, and he never attended church regularly. Yet somehow, he was obsessed with the “concept” of God and throughout his life endeavoured to know more about God. It was perhaps due to this passionate desire that he used as literary basis for his Symphony no.9 Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. In this poem, Schiller writes about a day when there will no longer be any strife and division among us. Instead, we will live as brothers and sisters in a place of eternal rejoicing. If one is to consider this text deeply, it is in essence a secular description of Heaven! Beethoven rings out this message shamelessly and without restraint in his titanic “Ode to Joy” melody. But one must realize that the “Ode to Joy” does not stand alone. It is the final movement of the Symphony no. 9, and one must listen to all of the movements in order to fully appreciate its tremendous power. The first three movements tell all about the happiness and miseries of our current life. But in the finale, as melodies from the first three movements return and are abruptly cut off, it is made clear that this life will eventually pass away; it is nothing compared to the life yet to come.
Finale “Ode to Joy”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9EJE1ad36Q
Symphony no. 9 (Complete): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3217H8JppI
Franz Liszt (1811-1886): “Magnificat” from the Dante Symphony (1855-1856)
The biography of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is perhaps among the most interesting of biographies. He was blessed with a long life (seventy-five years), and spent most of the first half as THE pop star of his time. During this period he performed numerous piano concerts and courted numerous women. But behind such shiny façade he nourished a spiritual life, a side of him that gradually became more influential as the years passed by. At the age of fifty-four he at last decided to renounce his celebrity status to enter the Catholic clergy on a full-time basis. He would remain associated with the clergy for the rest of his life. Ten years before this crucial decision of his life Liszt wrote the Dante Symphony, having being inspired by a reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Obviously, the original intent was to compose it in three movements: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. But his friend and colleague Richard Wagner objected that Heaven was beyond human imagination to write about, and persuaded Liszt to remove Paradiso from the blueprint. Liszt, still hoping to incorporate Heaven into the composition, made a compromise by appending a section to the end of Purgatorio which he called “Magnificat”. Now, this “mere appendage” is recognized as one of the greatest passages in the symphonic literature. Here, Liszt employed a compositional technique known as “major chords related by a third”, which was very infrequently used. But the genius and insight of Liszt in using it allowed him to conclude the symphony in a splash of light, adorning it with a crown of indescribable beauty.
Dante Symphony (Complete): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hko1TNkgUUE
It is not my expectation that the reader of this essay is Christian. Whether you are Christian or non-Christian, the music is there, and all you have to do is listen to it and enjoy it. But one question that I have always pondered: What exactly did the composers see when they created this music? Did they indeed see something, and if so, what was it? It may be an incredibly strange feeling to face the truth, but what if Schiller and Beethoven were right? What if our current life in this world is but a trifle compared to the life to come?