Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

October 13, 1990, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Missa Solemnis Op. 123 Ludwig van Beethoven
Carolann Page , Soprano
Christine Cairns , Mezzo Soprano
Agostino Castagnola , Tenor
Anthony Michaels-Moore , Bass/Baritone


Tradition and miracles: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis There are many approaches to a great work of art. Each generation and individual sees the work from a different stance, in a different light. For me, there are three features which loom large in the Missa Solemnis. Firstly, the tradition of the Viennese Classical Mass, as perfected by Haydn. The Master Chorale audience knows something of that tradition; we have performed two of the mature Haydn works on the genre (Harmoniemesse and Paukenmesse) as well as Beethoven's own beautiful Mass in C and Schubert's finest setting, the Mass in E-flat, written in 1828, five years after Missa Solemnis. Later this season we offer Haydn's Nelson Mass. This is a tradition of assured style and conventions, fine symphonic proportions, and alive with human optimism and joy in a way which can astonish and delight twentieth-century listeners. The Missa Solemnis, like the Haydn masses, has nothing to do with being "solemn" in the conversational sense. "Solemn" as used here, is simply a technical term relating to the occasion of the work's performance. Secondly, the miracles. This Beethoven work is full of new ideas and original gestures, which may be described as miracles of the human imagination. I shall try to indicate some of these moments later. Thirdly, the work is covered with Beethoven's fingerprints, which we have grown to love. The fiercely energetic, driving rhythms, fast tempos which convey ecstasy and joy within velocity, many, many single notes and words accented for repeated emphasis, and sudden points of quietness giving a sense of cosmic awe before the music drives on again. But overall is the man's optimism and belief in mankind's innate nobility and heroism. For me it is the optimism which is finally so moving in this great human testament. The following will, I hope, serve as a sort of route-map for those new to the piece and as a reminder to those who are deepening their experience of a familiar work.
The opening Kyrie is sustained and grand, in three sections. The orchestra announces the rich chord on the rhythm of the word "Kyrie" and the choir later take this up. The four soloists are given more melting, falling phrases. The middle section, slightly faster in a new metre, again uses the rhythms of the word, the emphatic "Christe" placed against the rolling melody of "eleison" ... This section fades to a whisper for the third section, a reprise which ends quietly, angelically. One of the miracles.
All is energy and joy as the orchestra, then the voices, enter with the rising, trumpeting melody. The sudden quietness of "pax hominibus" (peace to men) has a rocking rhythm, and "adoramus te" (we adore you) is a single point of quietness and awe amid the ensuing celebration.
Gentle clarinets and bassoons introduce this lyrical section, throughout which the warmth of the melodies are contrasted with the hammering, majestic style of the passages dealing with God's power. The sudden fade at the end of the section creates a superb Beethovian transition to "qui tollis."
The splendor of the preceding section suddenly becomes the intensity of quiet woodwinds for "qui tollis" (who beareth away the sins of the world). Beethoven is observing all the traditional mood-sections of the Viennese mass, in his own dramatic and devoted way. Trumpets and drums brush aside the sadness at "qui sedes" (who sitteth at the right hand of God) and the closing "miserere" (dark, penitent) is shot through with dramatic outbursts from the chorus.
Strong trumpeting music again, marked everywhere by stresses: the emphatic Beethoven. An extraordinary sudden drop in the sound, immediately recovering in a choral crescendo, introduces a powerful, very German, "Amen" fugue started by the basses of the chorus. But this fugue goes in no ordinary direction. It suddenly doubles its speed, leaping, as it were, to a higher plane of adoration and joy. The opening music of the Gloria returns, transformed by speed, and the huge structure is crowned by three final syncopated cries of "Gloria!" Another miracle.
This setting of the Nicene Creed opens with massive confidence, hushing only for the mystery of "ante omnia saecula" (before all ages) and the gentle warmth of "qui propter nos homines" (who, for us, men).
Although many, including this conductor, see Missa Solemnis as primarily a work of the human spirit, a child of the Enlightenment and European turbulence, there is no doubt that Beethoven in later life was reading deeply in philosophy and religion. Nor is there any doubt that this passage may be seen as the contemplative center of the whole work. The mystery of God made Man, which Christians call the Incarnation, is represented by Beethoven with astonishing poetry and power. A sudden very slow tempo. The tenors sing quietly a melody which could be ancient, priestly. The dove of the holy spirit then hovers above (a flute solo) as the soloists repeat the paradox "ex Maria virgine" (born of the virgin, Mary). Miraculous, devoted music. But at the words "et homo factus est" (and was made man) the solo tenor soars in broad operatic phrases. It could be a passage from Fidelio, and side-by-side with the incarnation picture, becomes one of the most deeply moving passages in the work. "Crucifixus," dark and dramatic, leads to the stillness of the grave.
A sudden shout from the tenors ('et!') and then the unaccompanied choir, in antique harmony, introduce the rushing upward scales of the Ascension. Every word is now specially pointed in the text, before a surprising return of the confident "Credo" with new choral material added. Then comes another of the work's miracles. Beethoven seems to relax to contemplate the words "et vitam venturi" (the life to come, or, simply, the future). A slow, contemplative build-up leads to hectic activity on those words. This is one of Beethoven's great, frenzied glory-marches. Heroic, super-optimistic, it culminates in an elevated, very slow statement at the extremes of the choral register. Even the tranquil amens which follow are once shattered by hammer-strokes. Listen for the first trombone at the very end as he, too, states his gentle confidence in the life to come. The Credo should be heard as Beethoven's central statement.
This is solemn, in the strongest sense; a dark orchestral texture as the soloists intone the words. A springing muscular fugue, started by the sopranos, is "pleni sunt coeli" (heaven and earth are full of thy glory) and "Osanna" is an even faster fugue. This is Beethoven the master of traditional counterpoint, and clearly conveying his meaning through these time-honored devices. An orchestral meditation emerges, entitled Praeludium, which leads to the Benedictus.
The famous violin solo appears, in a lilting, but never sentimental metre, as the basses intone the first words. Thereafter, the music expands and develops to become the major slow movement of the work. Beethoven breaks with tradition, as Haydn had done in Paukenmesse, by not returning to the music of the original "Osanna." He preserves the movement's unity by simply incorporating the obligatory reprise of these words, broadly, gloriously, as part of the movement. The solo violin has the last word as it soars above the fading choir and orchestra.
In the Haydn tradition, the Agnus dei became the area of surprise gestures, most notably in Paukenmesse, and, later, we will hear Beethoven's expansion of that lesson, as the wars of Europe intrude. The movement opens majestically and expressively. Bright colors are banished, with even the women of the choir silent at first.
At the words "dona nobis pacem" (give us peace) a new world of tranquility opens, reminiscent of the calmness of the Benedictus, although even here Beethoven hammers home the word "pacem" from time to time. Then comes one of the most dramatic gestures in any Classical setting of the mass - an idea starting from Haydn's war-like interruption in Paukenmesse. Unaccompanied kettle-drum introduces distant military fanfares. The alto soloist, then the tenor, pray in terror (in free recitative), the chorus cries for mercy, as does finally the solo soprano. The peace theme returns and flows forward. But the calmness is interrupted again, this time by a frenzied contrapuntal passage for the orchestra'' hich tears away from the D-major home of the work and culminates in a desperate cry of "miserere nobis" (have mercy upon us) from the chorus. A long high note from the solo soprano finally banishes the jarring sound of war and the peace motif returns. The work closes, a complete drama, purified and resolved, as rising scales in the orchestra mount confidently to the final chord.
Beethoven headed this work with the words: "From the heart: to the heart may it go."
Beethoven repeatedly asserted in his later years that the Missa Solemnis in D (Op 123) constituted the greatest single achievement of his life.
He commenced its composition by April-May, 1819, sometime after the completion of the gigantic Piano Sonata in B flat major (Opus 109). He intended the Mass to enhance the grandeur and pomp of the liturgy at the installation of his favorite pupil, the Archduke of Austria, Rudolf of Habsburg, as Archbishop or Olmutz.
Writing to Rudolf, also recently created a Cardinal, in June, 1819, Beethoven observed: "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 or my lire; and God will enlighten me so that my poor talents may contribute to the glorification of that solemn day.”
That solemn day occurred in Cologne Cathedral on March 19, 1820, but it was not glorified by Beethoven's freely offered tribute. Three years later to the day, March 19, 1823, Beethoven presented a beautifully wrought full-score manuscript of the just completed Mass to his glorious clerical patron.
What had intervened between 1818 and December, 1822, to inhibit the completion of this masterpiece? The study of Beethoven's thematic sketchbooks and our knowledge of his compositional habits showed that during this period he commenced, worked on, and completed among other works three Piano Sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, the Bagatelles, and the Consecration of the House Overture, while resuming work on the Ninth Symphony. However, the most probable factor delaying the completion of the Mass was the legal struggle he engaged in to gain custody of his nephew Karl from his sister-in-law Johanna after the death of his brother Caspar Carl on November 15, 1815. By 1820 he had gained What some have called a Pyrrhic victory. "Pyrrhic," because Karl, now in Beethoven's custody and feeling ever more stilled by the overbearing love of his uncle, attempted suicide in 1826. This ghastly event shattered Beethoven and contributed to his death in 1827.
Maynard Solomon ("Beethoven and his Nephew, a Reappraisal") sees this period of conflict as the time when Beethoven after the 1814 high-water mark of his popularity found himself unanchored and drifting. The ensuing emotional turmoil found expression in the aggressive tactics of the court struggle where they were by 1820 worked out. Reordered and controlled by the victorious outcome, his compositional energies reemerged purged and vigorous.
The Missa Solemnis in D received its first complete performance under the patronage of Prince Nicholas Galitzin in St. Petersburg on April 7, 1824. In May, 1824, Vienna produced a performance of the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei, the only one heard there in Beethoven's lifetime. The city had to wait until 1845 to hear a complete rendition. In 1835, however, the Missa fulfilled its original purpose at a grand Mass celebrated in the Cathedral of Pressburg (Bratislava ).
On April 8, 1824 Prince Galitzin wrote to Beethoven concerning his impressions upon hearing the first performance of the Missa. His views certainly state what has become the conviction of music lovers. "The effect of this music on the public cannot be described, and I doubt if I exaggerate when I say that for my part I have never heard anything so sublime ... This whole work in fact is a treasure of beauties; it can be said that your poor genius has anticipated the centuries and that there are not listeners perhaps enlightened enough to experience all the beauty of the music, but it is posterity that will pay homage and will bless your memory much better than your contemporaries can."

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