On 26 March, we commemorated the 196th anniversary of the death of German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Though it’s been almost two centuries since his death, Beethoven’s music lives on in the many performers who continue to bring his works to life—including internationally acclaimed concert pianist, organist and composer Anthony Halliday.

In the course of completing a PhD thesis through the University of Sydney, Anthony—who has been Associate Director of Music and Principal Organist at St Francis’ Church in Melbourne’s CBD for 20 years—has recently uncovered fascinating new information about some of Beethoven’s music, most notably that a number of the composer’s later works were set within the context and narrative of the gospels of Jesus Christ. His discoveries, particularly in relation to the Hammerklavier sonata—whose significance has perplexed musicologists and pianists for the 205 years since it was composed—have both deepened Anthony’s faith and changed the way he performs Beethoven’s music.

Anthony spent four years working on his thesis, Written Text: a resource for performance-interpretation of Beethoven’s piano sonatas Opp. 106, 110, and 111 in a Christological context. In it, he methodically outlines the many clues that he says ‘clearly show’ that these late works by Beethoven refer to Christ, as described in the Gospel of Matthew (and to some extent in the gospels of Mark, Luke and John) and in the Acts of the Apostles.

Explaining his motivation for doing the thesis, Anthony says ‘people either love Beethoven’s music or have some sort of antipathy to it—people are either extremely devoted and deeply moved by it, or highly challenged by it.’ His thesis focuses on Opus 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata, written in 1818. It’s Beethoven’s longest sonata and, according to Anthony, ‘one of the most difficult to play technically, and difficult to understand. It has four movements and takes almost an hour to play, and again, people are either completely devoted to it or they despise it.’ Intrigued by these very polarised reactions, Anthony wanted to investigate the possible significance of this misunderstood sonata.

He was also aware that Beethoven often composed to a narrative but refrained from revealing the narrative to his audience, allowing them to interpret his music from their own perspective. ‘So an added purpose of the thesis was to produce a “plausible narrative” for the pieces under investigation,’ he says, ‘to provide the performer with a possible narrative that may assist with their interpretation.’

There were a number of clues that led Anthony to the gospels in his search for this narrative. First, he says, Beethoven was Catholic, and his late compositions often had strong references to Christ. As Beethoven said, ‘Jesus and Socrates are my models.’

‘We also know that Beethoven was familiar with sacred music,’ Anthony says, and was a great admirer of Handel’s Messiah. Another important clue revealed itself when Anthony discovered ‘a structural similarity between Part 2 of Handel’s Messiah, which refers to the death and resurrection of Christ, and the Hammerklavier’. The two works displayed similar key structures and themes, and these were very unusual for Beethoven’s music. ‘This type of analysis hadn’t been done before,’ Anthony says.

Another clue, according to Anthony, was that Beethoven composed the Hammerklavier for the Archduke Rudolph, who would go on to be ordained a priest and then become a cardinal. In his dedication of the Hammerklavier to Rudolph, Beethoven describes it as ‘a grand sonata … long ago dedicated completely for you in my heart’. This prompted Anthony to consult the text of the gospels—mainly Matthew, but also Mark, Luke and John—where he found that ‘the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel suited the music exactly, in terms of different movements of the music to the storyline of the gospel. It fits bar by bar with the narrative.’

The first movement of the Hammerklavier, for instance, fits exactly the rhythm of the words ‘Hosanna, to the Son of David’, from the Palm Sunday liturgy, followed by the Last Supper and the first Eucharist, Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, his betrayal by Judas, his trial before the high priest, Peter’s denial, the trial by Pilate, the scourging, and Pilate’s sentencing Christ to death while washing his hands. ‘Once I constructed a plausible, evidence-based narrative, it struck me that Beethoven, through music notation, was able to convey a sense of “emotional meaning”.’

Musicologists have described the second movement as ‘a humorous yet dark parody’ of the first movement, and as ‘a brutal joke’, but no explanatory narrative or storyline had previously been proposed. In his thesis, Anthony draws on associated motifs in Beethoven’s vocal music to argue that ‘this is where the soldiers deride and mock Jesus before leading him to Calvary to be crucified.’

The third movement is slow, comprising nine sections and lasting 20 minutes—the longest of Beethoven’s slow movements—and has been described by musicologists as conveying ‘tragic pathos and purgatorial suffering’, ‘lament … fused with prayer’ and ‘feelings associated with the most sanctified experiences’. Anthony argues that this movement reflects the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross, with the first and last sections serving as an introduction and coda, and those in between showing ‘a syllable-to-note relation according to the Latin text of the Seven Last Words.’ The most striking of these, according to Anthony, is Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum (‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’).

The fourth movement is a fugue, a composition where the various musical parts imitate each other. Analysing its structure, Anthony was able to relate the music’s notation to the accounts in Luke’s gospel of events on the day of the resurrection, the road to Emmaus, Christ’s appearances to his disciples, his ascension, the apostles in prayer, the ordination of Mathias and the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost. ‘It’s really quite extraordinary!’ Anthony says.

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He feels his discoveries are important because they show there’s still more to learn about Beethoven. ‘From the beginning, people had said I’d never find anything new about Beethoven,’ he says. ‘Scholars have been analysing his music for almost 200 years, since his death in 1827. But in the thesis, I’ve shown there is more to discover.’

Anthony’s discoveries have also changed the way he plays Beethoven’s music. ‘Understanding the narrative and studying how Beethoven played—the quality of the sound, or “sonority”—has had a big impact on the way I now perform Beethoven’s pieces. There are different accents in the music and different stresses, which we now know link to specific narratives from the passion, death, resurrection of Christ, and descent of the Holy Spirit … The narrative helps give unity and structure to the performance of the Hammerklavier.’

Like Beethoven, Anthony was brought up in a Catholic family. He was a student and chorister at Xavier College, in Melbourne’s east, but didn’t begin piano lessons until he was 15 years old. Taught by world-renowned pianist, harpsichordist, conductor and composer Roger Heagney, and keen to make up for lost time, he applied himself diligently to his lessons, going on to win a Churchill Fellowship and other scholarships to study in London at the Royal College of Music and Royal College of Organists.

After about 20 years in London, serving as music director at Southwark Cathedral and, before that, at St Anselm and St Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Kingsway, he returned to Melbourne, where he took up his role at St Francis’ Church and also directs the music at St Joseph’s Parish Brunswick West. He travels each year to participate in the European concert season, and this June will be in Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace, to give the final concert in the international organ festival in the Bonner Münster, the city’s cathedral.

Anthony says that writing his thesis has not only influenced the way he understands and plays Beethoven’s latest pieces, but that it has also ‘intensified my faith considerably’.

Beethoven was brought up Catholic. He prayed twice every day. Later in life, he became deaf, and in his letters, he wrote about the purpose of suffering—that he didn’t view suffering as being negative; that it would have a positive outcome, and that he wanted to use his art for the benefit of humankind. It’s extraordinary! I understand a purpose to suffering much more through analysing Beethoven’s approach to suffering and his wanting to use his art for the benefit of people. His music intensifies the whole Gospel story for me, really.

He points out that when Beethoven was asked why he composed music, he said, ‘What is in my heart must out.’ Anthony’s own life in music has brought him to a similar conclusion.

‘I think it’s just something within you that has to come out, as Beethoven said … it’s just part of your make-up, and if you’ve been given a musical education, then it helps to bring out what one has within.’

A hard copy of Anthony Halliday’s thesis has been placed in the library of Beethoven’s birth-house in Bonn, Germany, where scholars from around the world can access it.