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Length: c. 80 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ, strings, chorus, and soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 17, 1952, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
To grasp the immensity of Beethoven's vision in the Missa solemnis has always been a great intellectual and emotional challenge, a task no less demanding than the patient study required of anyone anxious to immerse themselves in the complexity of his business dealings. Because the work had come to mean so much to him during the years that he was working on it, he set great store on its presentation to the public in print and in performance. Beethoven engaged in a vast correspondence with publishers, crowned heads and their representatives, and patrons of various kinds, in order to ensure a worthy destiny for his Grand Mass.
He regarded it as his greatest work. At the head of the score he wrote: “Von Herzen – möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen!” (From the heart: may it go to the heart). If any work from his last years reveals Beethoven’s complicated view of existence, it is the Missa solemnis, more than the Ninth Symphony, which is a vigorous paean for human brotherhood and aspiration, and more than the late string quartets, which are too far removed from the certainties of language to be lightly interpreted with any human reference.
Having spent the winter of 1817-18 composing the huge “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata, Op. 106, Beethoven chose as its dedicatee the Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s half-brother, who had studied composition with Beethoven and been one of his most devoted patrons. In 1819 the Archduke was created a cardinal and appointed Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc) in Moravia. In congratulating him, Beethoven offered to provide a Mass for his installation; in fact, he seems to have already started work on such a piece. The ceremony was scheduled for March 1820, but in the event the Mass was not ready, having taken on dimensions that Beethoven himself had not foreseen. It had grown far beyond being suitable for any liturgical occasion. In between work on his last three piano sonatas, he worked steadily on the Mass throughout 1821 and 1822, and as soon as it was done he embarked on another huge composition, the Ninth Symphony.
The first performance of the Mass, arranged by another of Beethoven’s noble patrons, the Russian Prince Galitsin, took place in St. Petersburg in April 1824. A month later Beethoven gave the first performance of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna, with three movements of the Mass included in the same concert. He never “heard” the work complete in his lifetime. Much of his energy in the last few years of his life was consumed with concern about the many handwritten copies of the Mass that he had offered on subscription in the hope of being handsomely paid for each. Eventually he assigned the work to the publisher Schott, in Mainz, but it did not appear until shortly after his death.
An earlier Mass by Beethoven, the Mass in C, composed in 1807, was modeled on Haydn’s Masses. Unlike many of his middle-period works, it does not expand the conventions of the form or reveal any of the Herculean strength that Beethoven was already displaying in his symphonies. So the Missa Solemnis is a document that tells us much about Beethoven’s faith and his concept of the divine.
Although brought up a Catholic, Beethoven was a son of the Enlightenment who thought deeply about religion and preferred to fashion his own faith rather than accept any rigid dogma from the Catholic church or any other. He felt deep humility before a divine power inconceivably greater than himself, and his turning in his last years towards a contemplative vision after the self-asserting extroversion of the middle years has a decidedly religious ring. Deafness forced him to regard himself as the most wretched of God’s creatures, but God was not cursed. God was the embodiment of all that was divine in humanity and in nature and, for Beethoven, a personal, omnipotent father of the brotherhood of mankind. The worship of Christ played no part in his religious universe.
The grandeur of the Missa solemnis is Beethoven’s way of representing God’s majesty. Rather than hearing it as a declaration of faith (as most obviously expressed in the words of the Credo) we should look beyond the words to the music’s invocation of a numinous God beyond our understanding. To achieve this, the music had also to reach out beyond conventional musical language to sounds that themselves defy our understanding: we can no more easily grasp the inner nature of this music than we can define the divinity of God himself.
Certain features of the music stand out. The chorus is kept busily occupied throughout, often being required to sing across a wide range, with angular, leaping figures, or at an uncomfortable pitch. Violent contrasts of loud and soft are common. The independence of the voices and the stamina required of all singers are exceptional. In his late works Beethoven had an obsessive interest in fugue, so that those portions of the Mass conventionally treated as fugues (the concluding sections of both the Gloria and the Credo) reveal a determination to outdo a long tradition of fugal writing, leaving Bach and Handel in the dust. “Pleni sunt cœli” (in the Sanctus) and “Dona nobis pacem” (in the Agnus Dei) are also set as fugues, and when not concerned with elaborate fugal processes Beethoven prefers a freely imitative style which brings out each voice in turn.
The orchestra is the big virtuoso instrument that Beethoven had himself developed in the process of writing eight symphonies, sometimes overpowering in its force, often used with the utmost delicacy. The solo singers are not provided with solo arias and duets, as they might be in a Mozart Mass, but intertwine with the chorus often on equal terms.
Two movements stand out in terms of style: the Benedictus is prefaced with a beautifully rich passage for divided lower strings supported by flutes and bassoon. Into this calm scene high flutes and solo violin descend like a dove from heaven, and the basses announce the Benedictus itself. At first this is an extended languorous violin solo with occasional pianissimo interventions from the brass. Then the solo voices take up the melody, and finally the chorus joins the texture, never hurried, lost in contemplation.
The final movement, the Agnus Dei, indulges in some direct pictorialism when trumpets and drums remind us of the military culture without which it would not be necessary to offer a prayer for peace. Beethoven, like Haydn, could not escape the presence of military men in his midst or the real threat of war, as Napoleon left no corner of Europe untouched by his campaigns. When the Missa solemnis was written, peace had returned to the world they knew, although Beethoven was looking far beyond the immediate present to an ideal world in which freedom, brotherhood, and love would prevail under the beneficent gaze of the Almighty.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century speared in 2008.