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Program Notes, November 4, 2016 performance of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis"

Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Two centuries after his birth, Ludwig van Beethoven remains a true celebrity, deservedly famous for his piano works, string quartets and other chamber music, and, of course, his symphonies. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he wrote very little religious music. Yet the composition he considered his finest was a Mass setting: the Missa Solemnis. He wrote it towards the end of his life, between 1819 and 1823, when he wrote many other monumental works, including the Ninth Symphony, the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata, Diabelli Variations, and the “Grosse Fuge” (1825, part of op. 130), all works that reach out past the natural limits of music towards a higher ideal.

Beethoven lived in tempestuous times. He was born in 1770 in Bonn, then part of the Holy Roman Empire and the seat of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne. When Beethoven was 25 years old, studying with Haydn in Vienna, the Elector fled the city before Napoleon’s armies, effectively ending the Electorate of Cologne; in 1806, just a decade later, the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire was itself dissolved. Those revolutionary political changes reflected broader intellectual and cultural changes that included greater emphasis on individual freedom, fulfillment, and expression—ideals that also underlay our own American Revolution. Beethoven embraced and embodied those ideals, and lived as the quintessential heroic individualist, as well as a fervent supporter of the French revolutionary cause (until Napoleon declared himself Emperor). He also suffered greatly from the frequent wars that buffeted Europe during his life, echoes of which can be heard the final movement of his Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to make a living on his own, without an official appointment or a single noble patron. He did rely on stipends from a circle of aristocratic friends and admirers, but a large part of his income came from performances, publishers, commission fees and subscriptions. This gave him considerable creative freedom, but involved him in many schemes and ventures that did not always work out well.

One patron was particularly dear to him: Rudolph, Archduke of Austria, youngest son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, who began piano and composition lessons with Beethoven as a teenager. Rudolph was one of three noblemen who granted a lifetime annuity to Beethoven in 1809 on the condition that he remain in Vienna, and he was the only one of the three to reliably make the payments as promised. Beethoven, in gratitude, dedicated 15 works to Rudolph. (For his part, Rudolph dedicated one of his compositions to Beethoven.)

As the youngest son, Rudolph was fated for a career in the church; in 1819 it was announced that he was to be appointed Archbishop of Olomouc, in Moravia. Beethoven immediately wrote to him, “The day on which a High Mass composed by me is performed at the ceremonies of Your Imperial Highness will be the most glorious day of my life.” He began work on what would be the longest and hardest compositional effort of his life. As it happened, he missed the deadline for the ceremony by about three years, finally presenting the manuscript to  the Archduke (now Cardinal) in March 1823.

Unusually, this was a labor of love: there was no commission or promise of payment—though some biographers believe that Beethoven had hopes of eventually being appointed Rudolph’s Kapellmeister. (Lack of a commission did not stop Beethoven the entrepreneur from making money from his efforts; over the four years of its composition, he sold “exclusive” publication rights to five different publishers and then marketed the Missa by subscription.)

Why a Mass setting? Beethoven was certainly thinking of his legacy (an Enlightenment concept that would have been foreign to J.S. Bach), and, though he was not a churchgoer, his statements and diary entries leave no doubt about his profound personal spirituality. By 1819, several factors had deepened his feelings and intensified a spiritual quest: the increasing isolation of deafness (conversations with him needed to be written rather than spoken); chronic health problems that included edema, stomach pains, jaundice, and fevers; and his passionate struggle for custody of (and for the affections of) his nephew Karl.

As the central Christian liturgical ritual, the Mass is both a profession of faith and an exercise of that faith—well suited to Beethoven’s dramatic approach. His stated goal for the Missa Solemnis was “to arouse and establish permanent religious feeling in both the singers and the audience.” For his only previous Mass setting, the 1807 Mass in C, he had the text translated word by word into German, with comprehensive notes on the correct syllabic stresses of the Latin words. For his new composition, he plunged himself into careful study of a variety of musical traditions, including Gregorian chant, ancient church modes and counterpoint, the sacred works of Palestrina, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Handel’s oratorios, and Mozart’s Requiem. Over 600 pages of his notes and sketches survive.

The result was a composition richly expressive both through its historical resonances and for the ideas that Beethoven borrowed from earlier masters. Of course, Beethoven was not writing imitative or “period music”: everything comes through in his own voice.

The work is full of magical moments: The last exultant shout of joy at the end of the Gloria; in the Credo, the hushed et incarnatus est, God made man, sung by the soloists with a sparse accompaniment that includes a flute fluttering on high to represent the Holy Spirit’s appearance as a dove, and the infectious, rollicking dance of joy at the Resurrection, which washes through the rest of the movement; and, in the Benedictus, what is surely one of the most gorgeous violin solos ever written. There are also the resplendent fugues in the Gloria and the Credo, which are technical tours de force as well as highly expressive passages of music.

The Missa Solemnis, like much of Beethoven’s music, asks a lot of the performers. Peter Gutmann points out, for example, that “the choral sopranos are called upon to sustain loud notes at the very top of their range for lengths that would surpass the stamina of many soloists. Thus, beginning at bar 513 of the Gloria they are to hold a forte high A for about five seconds and at measure 21 of the Credo they are to sustain a fortissimo high B-flat for seven.” The other voices are taxed as well, as are most of the instruments. There are also those two great choral fugues; the British musicologist Donald Tovey is not alone in his opinion that the et vitam venturi is the most difficult choral passage ever written.

The difficulty of the music is often attributed to Beethoven’s indifference to earthly limitations in the pursuit of his artistic vision. But it is more likely that he intended the struggle to be part of the experience, both for the performers, who stretch themselves to their highest capabilities, and for the listeners caught up in that effort.

Beethoven never heard his Missa Solemnis performed in its entirety (the premiere was in St. Petersburg in April 1824, and the first full performance in Germany was not until 1830, three years after his death), but he did organize a performance in May 1824 that included the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei, which were given alternate German texts and called “Three Grand Hymns” because the Austrian censor would not permit liturgical music to be performed outside church. The performance also included the Consecration of the House overture and the premiere of the just-completed Ninth Symphony.

Musically, the performance cannot have been very good. It was only about a month before the concert that the venue was booked and the musicians hired. The large orchestra was filled out with amateurs from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, which also supplied the chorus of about 90 voices (including some boy sopranos). There were a few sectional and chorus rehearsals in the short time before the concert, but only two orchestra rehearsals were possible—this for both the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis! As Jan Swafford writes in his biography, “Here could be at least one day in his life when Beethoven was lucky to be deaf.” Still, at the last rehearsal Beethoven broke into in tears at the performance of the Kyrie, and afterwards he stood at the door and embraced all the amateurs who had donated their service.

There is good justification for calling the Missa Solemnis a five-movement choral symphony. Each movement has a distinct character that is closely tied to its function in the liturgy of the Mass.

The opening Kyrie is a preparation to enter into the sacred service; the music is stately and majestic as the singers ask forgiveness of sins from God the Lord (Kyrie); then it softens into 3/2 time and becomes more intimate when they address God-made-man (Christe).

The Gloria is an ancient hymn of praise; the joyous, driving music mirrors the priest lifting his arms to the heavens. Dramatic flourishes color every phrase: ebbing on “peace to men of good will,” swelling on “we praise You, we bless You, we glorify You.” The movement ends with a grand fugue starting on the final phrase, “in the glory of God the Father, Amen,” then restarting at the previous phrase, “With the Holy Spirit,” and restarting again with still more effervescence at the beginning of the verse: “For You alone are holy.” It rushes to its conclusion with a recapitulation of the initial theme, followed by the great, concluding shout, “Gloria!”

The Credo is a long statement of beliefs that threatens to be dry and wordy. Beethoven treats it as a dramatic cantata, divided into distinct chapters with individual character. After the confident declaration “I believe,” the story begins, each phrase appropriately colored: the fortissimo on “the omnipotent father,” the hushed mystery on “all things, visible and invisible,” the warmth of the Son’s compassion “for us men and our salvation,” and his descent from heaven mirrored by a descending musical line. The incarnation and the crucifixion, endowed with a transcendent, otherworldly quality by use of old church modes, have already been mentioned; the rush of energy at the Resurrection drives right through the series of doctrinal clauses that follow, the chorus repeating “I believe, I believe” so that the words seem almost an inevitable consequence of the Resurrection itself. Even the Last Judgment, judicare vivos et mortuos, which is treated at length by many composers, is here marked by just a single discordant tone in the trombones.

Finally, we come to et vitam venturi, “the life of the world to come,” which is, following tradition, sung as a fugue. Time stops; the fugue begins lightly, effortlessly, suspended in eternity, then very slowly builds in strength and complexity before unleashing a cascade of notes, a rush of glory. At the conclusion, there is again a calm and eternal peace.

The Sanctus introduces the central part of the Mass, the consecration, where bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. With solemn, reverent music the choir joins with the angels on the words, “Holy, holy, holy” (though Beethoven can’t resist an ecstatic plunge into “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”); this is followed by the Praeludium, when in the liturgical Mass the voices are still and the organist sometimes would play a devotional interlude during the prayers before consecration. The voices return with the Benedictus, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” to quiet accompaniment and the ethereal solo violin above all.

The last movement, Agnus Dei, is a prayer for forgiveness and peace. It arises in a dark minor key that after several minutes yields to a lilting, pastoral theme in 6/8 time (with a calm urgency similar to that of the Christe eleison at the start of the Mass), which Beethoven marked “Plea for inner and outer peace.” Set against that plea are drums and trumpets, the sounds of war, and the soloists and chorus cry out. The chorus launches into a fervent prayer, dona nobis pacem, rooted on a quotation from Handel’s Hallelujah chorus (“and he shall reign forever and ever,” doubly solid for that subtext and for its association with the English, who defeated Napoleon). What follows is a pitched battle between the sounds of war and the cries for peace. The restless opposition of themes is like that in the Ninth Symphony—except that here, no voice cries out, “Friends, not these sounds!” James Levine has commented that “Nothing in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio can top this level of drama in all of its humanity and struggle.” In the end, peace prevails, but not with much assurance.

This unsettled conclusion is in sharp contrast to that of the contemporaneous Ninth Symphony, as William Cole has noted: “The Ninth moves from a state of disorder and darkness at its opening to a glorious celebration of human brotherhood and hope, from chaos to certainty. The Missa Solemnis takes the opposite journey, from the stability of the unison cries of ‘Kyrie’ at the beginning to an oddly abrupt, almost unresolved ending. We seem to reach some kind of resolution with the last few orchestral chords, but the sound of warfare is still ringing in our ears.”

It is not difficult to see why Beethoven regarded the Missa Solemnis as his greatest composition. The Missa was the direct expression, through music of great subtlety and power, of his lifelong quest for the divine. Beethoven knew great personal suffering (lost loves, family strife, poor health), but, he told Bettina von Arnim in 1810,

I am well aware that God is nearer to me in my art than to others. I consort with Him without fear. I have always recognized and understood Him. Nor am I in the least anxious about the fate of my music. Its fate cannot be other than happy. Whoever succeeds in grasping it shall be absolved from all the misery that bows down other men.

Program Notes compiled by Peter Pulsifer.

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