By Richard H. Trame, S.J.
Loyola Marymount University
Beethoven repeatedly asserted in his later years that the Missa Solemnis in D (Opus 123) constituted the greatest single achievement of his life. He commenced its composition sometime after the completion of the gigantic Piano Sonata in B flat major (Opus 109). Like the earlier Mass in C of 1807 commissioned by Prince Esterhazy to celebrate his wife's nameday at Eisenstadt, Beethoven intended the Missa Solemnis to enhance grandeur and pomp at the installation of his favorite pupil, the Archduke of Austria, Rudolf of Habsburg, as Archbishop of Olmutz. Writing to Rudolf, also recently created a Cardinal, in June, 1819, Beethoven observed: 'The day in which a High Mass composed by me will be performed during the ceremonies solemnized for Your Imperial Highness will be the most glorious of my life; 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 show that during this period he commenced, worked on, and completed among other works three Piano Sonatas, the great Diabelli Variations, the Bagatelles, and the Overture to the Consecration of the House, while resuming work on the Ninth Symphony.
The most probable factor, however, delaying the completion of these works and 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. Beethoven's obsession to wrest the boy from maternal control in spite of Caspar Carl's codicil to his will modifying the earlier sole custody to Beethoven clause appears to numerous biographers a most crucial period in his life. Between 1815 and 1820, apparently mesmerized by his aggressive and at times quite irrational conviction that he was Karl's obvious protector, he waged unceasing legal warfare against Johanna. He gained what some have called a Pyrrhic victory in 1820. "Pyrrhic;' because Karl, now in Beethoven's custody and feeling ever more stifled by the overbearing love of his uncle, attempted suicide in 1826. This ghastly event shattered Beethoven and contributed to his death in 1827.
Naturally Beethoven's biographers from Schindler to the present persistently inquire about how this psychological and emotional battle affected the Master's compositions. Joseph Kerman in the New Grove Dictionary sees a clear dividing line within the “Third Period" between the aforementioned Piano Sonata (Opus 109) of 1818 and the resumption of the Master's compositional energies in an unbroken series of late period masterpieces from 1820 to 1826.
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 and after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with the demise or departure of numerous of his old friends 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 reemerging purged and vigorous.
The profound spiritual experience which Beethoven manifested in the setting of the texts of the Missa Solemnis did not blunt his acute business sense. The legal conflict had seriously depleted his finances. He proceeded to secure ten princely subscribers at 50 gold ducats each, including the Tsar, the Kings of France, Prussia and Denmark, who paid to receive exclusive manuscript copies of the Mass. He bargained with publishers until 1827 for the best offer. Schott of Mainz eventually published the score which appeared in print shortly after Beethoven's death.
The Mass received its first complete performance under the patronage of Prince Nikolas 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 Mass fulfilled its original purpose at a grand Mass celebrated in the Cathedral of Pressburg (Bratislava). Intended and conceived for a lengthy and magnificent religious service, the solemn installation of a great princely personage as Archbishop, the Missa Solemnis must be regarded not as a concert piece, but as a liturgical composition. Fifty years ago, Donald Francis Tovey asserted categorically that "It is a mistake to regard Beethoven as composing his text in any agnostic spirit of art for art's sake. He achieves art, which maintains itself as purely artistic by really inspiring himself with the definite needs of the occasion.”
It is manifestly impossible to provide such a detailed analysis of the Mass as Tovey provided in his program notes found in Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. Herein he argues the essential correctness of Beethoven’s choral writing and the overwhelming symphonic character of the Mass achieved through the unity of choral, solo and orchestral forces.
On April 8, 1824 Prince Galitzin wrote to Beethoven concerning his impressions at hearing that 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; sensations of eternal beauties you have given me, Monsieur, by the Kyrie and Gloria of your Mass. The masterly harmony and the moving melody of the Benedictus transport the heart to a plane that is really blissful. This whole work in fact is a treasure of beauties; it can be said that your genius has anticipated the centuries and that there are not listeners perhaps enlightened enough to experience all the beauty of this music, but it is posterity that will pay homage and will bless your memory much better than your contemporaries can.”