LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Missa solemnis, Op. 123
About the Composer
Within just a year after Beethoven's death in 1827, biographers began to divide his musical life into three periods: an early formative phase indebted to the work of Mozart and Haydn that lasted until around 1802; a middle period that features his "heroic" works and ended around 1812; and a final period that lasted until his death and contains his most profound and mystifying music. While this framework has often been criticized as overly simplistic, it nevertheless sheds light on Beethoven's major stylistic developments and helps provide a context for his individual works. The Missa solemnis, a grand work imbued with a profound sense of struggle, is indeed a prototype of Beethoven's late style.
In the six years before beginning work on the Missa, Beethoven suffered from a bout of unproductivity brought on by a variety of personal troubles, from his fruitless search for a life partner, to the legal battle over custody of his nephew, to his increasing deafness. His celebrated "Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata of 1818 is often cited as catapulting him out of his compositional rut. With it and the masterpieces that followed—including the Missa, the Diabelli Variations, the Ninth Symphony, and the late string quartets—the composer found a way to channel his emotional strife into more powerful and absorbing music than he had ever written.
About the Work
In 1819, it was announced that the Archduke Rudolf-Beethoven's longtime patron, student, and friend-would be appointed Archbishop of Olmütz the following year. Beethoven set out to compose a Mass for the occasion, writing to Rudolf, "The day on which a High Mass composed by me will be performed during the ceremonies solemnized for Your Imperial Highness will be the most glorious day of my life." But as the work grew to a much larger scale than Beethoven had anticipated, it became apparent that he had greatly underestimated the time he would need to complete it. He ultimately took five years to finish the Missa, more than twice as long as he had for any other work. The premiere in St. Petersburg in 1824—arriving well after the Archduke's elevation ceremonies, of course—may have not even included all the movements, and the work was not published until a few days after Beethoven's death.
While preparing to conduct the Mass, the great conductor Otto Klemperer once wrote, "It is enormously difficult to translate into reality a work which doesn't take reality into account." Indeed, the music of the Missa is excruciatingly demanding of its performers, especially the chorus, who sing in their upper registers with little respite and for a great while (at about 80 minutes, the Missa is twice as long as the average Haydn mass). Audiences, too, have been less likely to adore the Missa than the Ninth Symphony, which immediately followed it, and performances of the piece are relatively rare for such a significant work. At least the composer himself recognized the work's virtue: As it neared completion, Beethoven informed his publisher that it was the greatest work he had ever written.
Such a vast and overwhelming work is undoubtedly more suited for the concert hall than the church—which is perhaps fitting for Beethoven, who rarely attended Mass himself. While he considered himself a committed Catholic and was deeply religious, Beethoven's spirituality—which often surfaced during his most difficult personal times—intermingled with faith in humankind and beliefs in universal brotherhood, as evidenced in the Missa as well as in the "Ode to Joy" of his Ninth Symphony. (Robert Shaw once remarked how the symphony makes "a religion of Humanism" and the Missa "a humanism of Religion.") While Beethoven wrote that his "primary goal in composing the grand Mass was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings in both the singers and listeners," his famous dedication on the Archduke's manuscript may more accurately illustrate the ultimate motivation behind the work: "From the heart—may it return to the heart!"
A Closer Listen
As is standard for a mass, the Missa Solemnis is divided into five large sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
Kyrie: Void of the expansive elaborations that characterize the later movements, the Kyrie is the most concise and musically traditional section in the Missa. It is in the conventional tripartite form, with the middle "Christe" segment driven by a more contrapuntal chorus in the relative minor key (B minor).
Gloria: The Gloria is broken into a three-part structure as well, with two exuberant settings dominated by triple meter flanking a poignant slower section in duple meter. The musical mood matches the text, of course: In the middle larghetto, the chorus begs for mercy from Christ ("miserere nobis"); in the outer sections, they declare the glory of God. The movement concludes with the first of two massive fugues in the Missa, featuring formidable trumpets and timpani, pointed chromaticism, extreme registers in the chorus, and, ultimately, an ecstatic reworking of the movement's opening material.
Credo: As is standard for Mass settings, the Credo is the weightiest portion, encompassing the most text and covering the pivotal moments of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Beethoven's "word painting" is considerable here: Melodies fall when the chorus describes Christ's descent from Heaven and rise during his subsequent ascent; a trembling flute solo represents the flapping of the dove's wings as the Holy Spirit is invoked; stabs in the strings symbolize the hammer-blows of the crucifixion. Beethoven once again uses a three-part form in this movement, demarcating a drastic change in mood during the middle crucifixion section. Like the Gloria, this movement contains a colossal fugue. It begins innocently enough, with sopranos intoning "et vitam venturi saeculi, amen" in a hushed manner; but instruments pile on, the dynamics gradually increase, the tempo steadily ramps up, and the movement ultimately arrives at one of the most fervent declarations of faith in the entire Mass repertoire.
Sanctus: Beethoven divides the two parts of this movement's text (the Sanctus proper and the Benedictus) not with the traditional organ improvisation, but with an orchestral "Präludium." This moving passage segues into one of the most memorable moments of the Missa: A solo violin descends from heavenly musical heights and, for the remainder of the movement, floats above the singers' heartfelt blessing.
Agnus Dei: The opening of the Agnus Dei is firmly rooted in B minor, with the bass solo—interpreted by some to be Beethoven's own troubled voice—initiating the final plea for mercy. The ensuing "dona nobis pacem" begins with a mood reminiscent of the shepherd-song finale in the "Pastoral" Symphony, the major key and lilting 6/8 meter lending a sense of tranquility. The atmosphere is soon disrupted, however, by "military" music in the trumpets and timpani—a fitting nod to Haydn's use of the same tactic two decades earlier in his Missa in tempore belli, and one that no doubt resonated with Viennese audiences after the Napoleonic invasions.
Beethoven labels the "dona nobis pacem" a "prayer for inner and outer peace," and the remainder of the movement struggles to reconcile the serenity of its opening with the ravages of the military music. While the ending exudes an aura of triumph, vestigial rumblings in the timpani suggest that the prayer for peace is indeed only a prayer, not a certainty. For a composer who was inwardly tormented by a variety of emotional upheavals and outwardly struggling to deal with war-torn Vienna, a committed and hopeful prayer was, at least until writing the exultant finale of his last symphony, all he could manage.