‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever,’
the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.
—II Chronicles 5:13–14
I wanted to thank our choir and our orchestra and Lisa and Susan for bringing this beautiful piece to us this morning. And also the Malott family who underwrote this worship service.
Bob Malott is a great patron of the arts, and the Bob Malott of the early nineteenth century was Prince Nicholas II Esterhazy of Austria. In the early years of that century, the Prince practiced the charming tradition of commissioning a mass to honor the name day of his wife Maria Josepha, and for six years running that commission went to Joseph Haydn, the most admired musical genius of the day, but in 1802, after six straight years, Maestro Haydn had turned 70 and declined the commission because he felt he was getting too old to compose new pieces.
So Prince Nicholas had to try something else, and in 1807 he offered the commission to Ludwig van Beethoven, who was both honored and horrified by the offer. For Beethoven’s entire life, all of Vienna worshiped Joseph Haydn as a musical deity without equal in any time or place, so Beethoven was a little intimidated by the offer. He did his best, though, and the Mass in C Major premiered in Eisenstadt on September 13, 1807.
It turns out Beethoven had been right to be nervous about this whole thing, because the Prince was extremely underwhelmed by Beethoven’s offering. It had been under-rehearsed and then poorly performed; only one of five alto’s showed up for the final rehearsal.
To Beethoven’s face, the Prince was critical but gentle; he said, “My dear Beethoven, what have you gone and done?” But behind Beethoven’s back, the Prince was far blunter. In a private letter to a friend which sadly became public, the Prince called the Mass in C Major “unbearably ridiculous and detestable. I am angry and mortified.”
The Prince must have been in a bad mood that day. Don’t you think this mass is just a wonderful vehicle of praise for the Almighty. That Kyrie is just stunning. Beethoven was anything but a conventional Roman Catholic, but his relationship with God was lively and vivid; sometimes love and sometimes hate, but never indifferent.
You know, Beethoven wrote only two masses, and this one, the Mass in C Major is always overshadowed by the way huger, more beloved, perhaps more sophisticated Missa Solemnis which Beethoven wrote 15 years later.
But as I was listening to the Mass in C this week, I was reminded again how effortlessly—well, it wasn’t really effortless, but it seems like it—how effortlessly Beethoven’s music conveys the beauty of the Lord and the unspeakable loveliness of God’s cosmic canvas. Pick your favorite: the Adagio movement of the Seventh, or the Choral Movement of the Ninth, or the Moonlight; they’re so perfect you wouldn’t change a note.
The same thing is true of this Mass. One twenty-first-century critic called it a “long- underrated masterpiece,” and a contemporary of Beethoven pointed out that the Maestro’s prayers in this Mass are so transparent and winsome they sound as if they are the requests of a beloved child petitioning a loving father who, the child knows, is predisposed not only to hear, but to grant, his requests for mercy, for forgiveness, for flourishing.
Two events converged this weekend to remind me that God sometimes has a twisted sense of humor. Seventy-seven years ago yesterday—April 30, 1939—in a game against the Senators at Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig played in his 2,130th straight baseball game. It was the eighth game of the young season. The Yankees were in first place, but Lou Gehrig was batting an anemic and unheard of .143.
The next day, a Monday, the Yankees traveled to Detroit for a game on Tuesday, the 2nd, with the Tigers at Briggs Stadium. Before the game, Mr. Gehrig came up to Coach Joe McCarthy and asked to sit on the bench that day, breaking his famous streak of 2,130 straight games. He would never play again. By the way, the Yankees won that game at Briggs Stadium 22–2, without Lou Gehrig.
For me, two of God’s two cruelest jokes ever are Ironman Lou Gehrig getting a disease that later would bear his name, and Beethoven going deaf. They’re both so cruel because in both instances what was taken away from them—Gehrig’s resilient strength and Beethoven’s sense of sound—were the greatest things about them. It wasn’t just what they did; it was what they were.
As I got reacquainted with Ludwig’s singular life this week to prepare for the Mass this morning, it was just heartbreaking to get a glimpse of the way his deafness crippled his life—not his music, mind you, but at least his life.
His pride and his deafness conspired to isolate him from the support of his friends and his adoring fans. Beethoven was never modest about his prodigious talents; he knew there had never been another like him before, and likely never would be again; and that awareness of his unique God-given giftedness was the only thing that kept him alive; his sense of responsibility to use his gift on behalf of his art was the only thing that kept him from taking his own life.
He lost his hearing gradually, of course, over the course of about 20 years; they kept installing new pianos in his apartment that were louder and louder until there were none loud enough, even when he pressed his ear to the wooden cabinet above the strings.
His isolation was so complete that he started neglecting his hygiene. He would forget to change clothes, so his friends would sneak into his apartment at night and switch out the dirty clothes for clean; his friends were safe; he never noticed.
The police would find him wandering the streets of Vienna at night and take him to the police station because they thought he was homeless; the police were shocked to discover that this tattered hobo was the great Maestro himself.
It’s really a sad story. On the other hand, one of his interpreter’s said that Beethoven was a musical genius because of, not despite, his deafness. Since he could not hear the voices from outside his mind, he listened instead to the voice within. He closed out all the meaningless exterior noise, and concentrated instead on the voice within, and it was the voice of inimitable imagination. The only voice Beethoven could hear was the voice of God Godself. And what he heard, he passed along to us. He was an avatar of the divine, an instrument which played the music of the spheres.
I read something that gladdened my heart this week, and maybe it will gladden yours. Do you remember that golden record they put into the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977 before they sent it on its trip through and beyond the solar system? It has all kinds of information about earth, placed there under the slim hope that maybe someday a distant civilization will happen upon it and figure out how to translate the digital information.
There are photos of our planet and solar system; greetings in 40 languages from around the world; pictures of many earth animals, including homo sapiens; coordinates for our location in the universe. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that decided what should go into Voyager.
And of course some of our planet’s most precious artistry is on Voyager’s Golden Record. From the United States, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, of course.
And from Germany, the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, the first movement of the Fifth Symphony and a piece from one of the late string quartets. Just right, no?
Voyager is almost 12 billion miles away from earth just now. It’s still working, and will for ten more years, for a working life of almost 50 years.
For the next 40,000 years, Voyager will hurtle through empty space at 38,000 miles an hour, but then it will rendezvous with a distant star that is 17 light years from earth, and if that distant star has a planet with liquid water and an environment hospitable to complex life, perhaps someone will find that golden record, and listen to the music of Beethoven, and they will hear the message we wanted to convey: “Dear Distant Friend, Greetings from Earth. We were never perfect. We messed up a lot of things. By the time you find this, we might have figured out a way to obliterate the species and destroy our home planet. But we were capable of some fine, beautiful things; just listen to the first four notes of this symphony.”
Three thousand years ago, King Solomon of Israel spared no expense in building a house for God in Jerusalem. He mined the earth for precious metals and hewed the forests for expensive cedar and drafted the ablest craftsmen and hired the shrewdest artists and spun the softest wool and wove flawless tapestries and pressed the purplest dye, and it took him seven years to get it right.
And when he did get it right, he threw the Mother of All Dedication Services. There were battalions of priests, and armies of cellists, and legions of harpists, and 120 trumpets—120!—and a vast chorus of singers, every one of whom sounded like David and Alyssa and Emily.
And after they’d rehearsed for weeks and gotten it completely right, the music they made drifted up to the highest heaven, and when God heard the sound of it, God was so pleased God came down close just to hear their hymns.
And the Chronicler tells us that the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, and this cloud was the same vaporous pillar that had gone ahead of their ancestors like a seasoned scout through the wilderness for 40 years, and the presence of God Godself was so dense you couldn’t see a foot in front of your face, and the whole service came to an instant halt just like that. It could happen.
That’s what happens when you take the finest music on the planet and practice for weeks with love and zeal, and give it the absolute finest that’s in you: God shows up. God shows up with favor and blessing, and the presence of the divine is palpable. The house, the house of the Lord, is filled with a cloud.
It could happen.