Performance Tuesday, March 6, 2012 | 8 PM

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Due to his current physical condition and the great demands of this particular piece, conductor Kurt Masur has withdrawn from this performance.

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is steeped in the sacred-music tradition, yet uniquely Beethovenian: great blocks of massive choral force, contrasting moments of sweet repose, all conveying a broader faith in humankind. Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a quartet of star soloists, it’s a Carnegie Hall experience that will leave you enthralled and inspired.
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The Program


Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123

About the Work

The material circumstances surrounding Beethoven’s writing of the Missa solemnis can serve as little more than a backdrop against which to attempt an understanding of the music. Beethoven’s decision to compose the work was with a view toward a specific occasion: The Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the son of Emperor Leopold II and one of Beethoven’s most important patrons—for many years a student of Beethoven in piano and composition, dedicatee of 15 works by the composer, including the Fourth and Fifth piano concertos, the “Hammerklavier” and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the Op. 97 Piano Trio (the “Archduke”), and the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133—was to be installed as Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia on March 9, 1820. Upon hearing of Rudolph’s election, Beethoven wrote to him that “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 ...” Beethoven did not complete the Mass in time for the ceremony that March of 1820. Though he began formulating ideas for the Kyrie by the spring of 1819 (anticipating the official announcement of the Archduke’s election on June 4), the Mass did not reach completion until December 1822, and during the period of its creation Beethoven was also concerned with the last three piano sonatas, the “Diabelli” Variations and the Op. 119 Bagatelles, the Consecration of the House Overture, and the Ninth Symphony.

Many images of the composer dating from the time of the Missa solemnis are familiar: Anton Schindler, friend and not entirely reliable biographer of the composer, describes Beethoven at work on the fugue of the Credo, “singing, yelling, stamping his feet ... The door opened and Beethoven stood before us, his features distorted to the point of inspiring terror. He looked as though he had just engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the whole army of contrapuntists, his everlasting enemies.” Another incident is related by Alexander Thayer in his crucial biography of the composer: In this instance, we read of Beethoven awakening early one morning, dressing, slipping on an old coat but no hat, apparently losing direction during the course of his walk, peering in at the windows of nearby houses, and looking so like a beggar that he was arrested and imprisoned for an entire day, until he finally prevailed in having someone brought to identify him late that night. These stories strengthen our image of the composer heedless of the world around him, wrestling with his craft. Maynard Solomon refers to the Mass as “Beethoven’s absorbing passion for four years, replacing Fidelio as the great ‘problem work’ of his career.” Schindler states that never before or after this period did he see Beethoven “in such a condition of Erdenentrücktheit,” oblivion of earthly matters.

But Beethoven did have “earthly matters” to contend with as well. Not the least of these was the lawsuit over guardianship of his nephew Karl, a five-year struggle that ended in April 1820 with Beethoven winning the boy away from his mother Johanna, widow of the composer’s brother Caspar Carl. And then there were matters pertaining specifically to the Missa solemnis: his double-dealings with seven different publishers in an attempt to receive the highest possible fee for his work, and his offering of prepublication manuscript copies to whatever patrons would pay his price. There was the matter, too, of the premiere. Beethoven was anxious that the completed Mass and Ninth Symphony be heard. The original plan was to introduce the two works on the same concert, but fortunately this notion was scrapped: The program on May 7, 1824, in Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater consisted of the Consecration of the House Overture; the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei of the Mass (billed as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Choral Parts”—liturgical music was not permitted in the concert hall); and the symphony. Beethoven never witnessed a complete performance of the Missa solemnis, though the first one was given in St. Petersburg on April 18, 1824, under the auspices of Prince Nikolai Galitzin, a Russian admirer of Beethoven who had purchased one of the prepublication copies of the work and for whom Beethoven wrote his string quartets opp. 127, 130, and 132.

So much for history. As suggested at the outset, this very brief account of names, dates, and places stands apart from consideration of the music itself. The question of Beethoven’s religious beliefs might seem of some relevance, and the composer’s diaries and notebooks include phrases copied from philosophical and religious tracts. And we know that, in preparing to compose the Missa solemnis, Beethoven studied music of Palestrina and his contemporaries, of Handel, and of Bach; that he had the Mass text carefully translated so that its implications would be entirely clear to him; and that the resulting musical product uses images and patterns that may be traced to long-standing traditions and conventions in music written for the church service. But still, the music makes its own statement, and it seems best to understand that statement as one of an individual who has come to terms with himself over a long period of time, and whose individual message will ultimately be distilled into the compositional essence of the final piano sonatas and string quartets. Martin Cooper writes that “as a young man Beethoven was indeed both proud and self-sufficient, and it was only the experience of his deafness that broke this pride, slowly and painfully turning the heaven-storming, largely extrovert composer of the early and middle period works into the self-communing and contemplative visionary of the last 10 years … Beethoven moved from a position of militant stoicism ... to an acceptance which, whatever his everyday life may have been, bears in his music the unmistakable character of joy, that unearthly joy such as is only achieved through suffering.” The Missa solemnis speaks of joy and of suffering, of faith, hope, and trust. But it speaks, too, of self-awareness, of knowledge of one’s place, and of awe in the face of greater powers and events.

About the Music

It has been said that the Missa solemnis is out of place in the concert hall and yet too big for the church. It is probably too big for any mortally prescribed space. Beethoven wrote at the start of his score: “From the heart—may it go to the heart,” and he stated that his chief aim was “to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners.” The opening Kyrie is marked Mit Andacht (“with devotion”). For the more direct, personal appeal of the Christe, the soloists predominate and the texture is more active. The unified intent of orchestra, chorus, and soloists is spelled out at the very beginning: The woodwinds, in singing phrases, give out the musical idea to which the initial words of the Kyrie will be sung, and this same technique of instruments anticipating vocal material will occur again for the Gratias agimus tibi and the Qui tollis peccata mundi of the Gloria.

The sweep of the Gloria is overwhelming in its impact; the overall impression is one of power and inevitability, so much so, in fact, that the combined effect of Kyrie and Gloria can leave the listener drained, almost unable to cope with or understand what is still to follow. In keeping with its statement of faith and trust, the Credo is affirmative in tone. The sense of musical motion in the Credo is rather different from that of the Gloria—part of the reason for this lies in the more specific attention Beethoven gives to word-painting and the emphasizing of key text phrases: for example, the burst of D major at the words Et homo factus est, the sforzato stabs at Crucifixus, the stressing of passus, the descending and ascending motion at descendit de coelis and et ascendit in coelum, respectively.

The Sanctus, like the Kyrie, is again marked Mit Andacht, and is the first movement in which solo voices are heard before the chorus. This is in keeping with Beethoven’s reserving the soloists for special moments of intimacy, awe, and/or supplication (consider the miserere nobis of the Gloria, and the intensification of that plea for mercy to o, miserere nobis by, first, the tenor solo). The sense of the Sanctus is one of mystery, with the chorus silent, held in reserve. The Benedictus is preceded by a solemn orchestral Praeludium, and a tender, dolce cantabile violin song descends from above: Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini! The mood, fittingly, is that of a solemn processional, and it is essential that the solo instrument be a part of, and not, concerto-like, stand apart from, the sense of ceremony that pervades the whole.

The threefold prayer of the Agnus Dei is dark-hued, and the prominence again given the soloists makes the entreaty a moving and personal one. The choral “Dona nobis pacem” bears the inscription “Prayer for inner and outer peace,” and this prayer is threatened by intimations of war in the form of trumpet-and-drum alarums and fearful currents in the strings. Soloists and chorus renew the appeal for mercy, and the prayer for peace returns, this time interrupted by a jagged fugato for orchestra. But the ultimate message is one of hope. The last statement of the words dona nobis pacem is set to a musical phrase heard several times earlier but only now set apart to emphasize its particular breadth of feeling. The orchestra’s response is at once simple, concise, and affirmative.


© 2012 Marc Mandel

This concert and the Choral Classics series are made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for choral music established by S. Donald Sussman in memory of Judith Arron and Robert Shaw.
This performance is part of Choral Ecstasy - Students, and Choral Classics.