NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, for four Solo Voices, Chorus, Orchestra, and Organ
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
By universal consent, the twin peaks of the concert Mass repertory are Bach's so-called Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. So unique is its grandeur that merely to say "Missa Solemnis" can mean only Beethoven's Opus 123 - despite the fact that Schubert's Mass in A flat, D. 678, Cherubini's four Masses in C, E, G, and B flat, Rossini's Mass in A minor, Liszt's so-called Graner-Messe, and Gounod's Mass in G each bear the title Missa Solemnis. Beethoven himself sealed this sublime Mass with approval when he wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society dated June 21, 1823, beginning: "I have just completed a work that I consider the most perfect that I have written."
How high this places the Missa Solemnis in his own estimate is borne out by the fact that on that date Beethoven had already composed all his piano sonatas and all his symphonies except the Ninth. To embark upon this noble work that was begun no later than the winter of 1818 and not finished until the summer of 1822, he did more research than preceded any other composition from his pen. In a sort of day book that he kept during 1818 appears the jotting: "To write true church music, consult all the plainchants of the monks." In late 1819 or early 1820 he examined a copy of the Istitutioni armoniche of Zarlino (1517-1590), kept in the library of his erstwhile patron Prince Lobkowitz, seeking in it data on the old church modes. His letter dated July 29, 1819, to the Archduke Rudolph, mentions his going to "collect in Your Imperial Highness's Library at Vienna what was most useful to me." He conferred with a friend in 1820 who had news of a book about to be published on the History of the Mass, written by the noted critic August Friedrich Kanne. He read also, through the works that he owned by the composer whom he acknowledged as his greatest predecessor, Handel, and from Messiah took a theme (Hallelujah Chorus, "And He shall reign forever") for the triumphant return of "dona nobis pacem" in the middle of his Agnus Dei (when these words are first thundered forth by basses alone).
The upward thrusting theme with which Beethoven begins his grandiose Gloria is a transformation into vastly more significant music of a theme already used for the opening of a Gloria (1785) by his own counterpoint teacher from March 1794 to May 1795, Albrechtsberger. Long before the Missa Solemnis, he also knew Bach's B minor Mass. As early as October 15, 1810, he asked Breitkopf und Haertel, publishers in Leipzig, to send him Bach's Mass- which he identified in his letter by the ostinato theme of Bach's Crucifixus.
However, all that he could learn from prior settings of the Mass text passed through the fiery crucible of his own genius to emerge as molten gold. The noble opening chords of the Kyrie re-enact a formula for Kyrie openings as old as Cavalli's Missa Concertata (1656). The idea of using a rest immediately after tenors shout forth the "Et" beginning the Et ... resurrexit section ("And ... He arose") is a dramatic touch foreshadowed in Beethoven's own earlier Egmont music (when alluding to Clarchen's death). The descent of the high solo violin to symbolize Christ's descent into man's world at the outset of the Benedictus recalls the descent from the heights to the depths in his Quartet, Opus 59, No. 2, slow movement - a movement that Czerny said embodied Beethoven's reaction to the vast starry firmament on a clear night. But in his present opus he tied together all these strands from the past achievements of others and from himself to create a surpassing synthesis that beggars any merely descriptive analysis.
Beethoven dedicated it to his imperial pupil, Archduke Rudolph (Florence, 1788- Vienna, 1831), whom he began teaching in the winter of 1803-1804, and who after elevation to the cardinalate in 1819 was installed Archbishop of Olmutz March 9, 1820. Finding that the expected Missa Solemnis could not be ready by then, despite at least two years already spent on it, the Archduke Rudolph reluctantly settled in 1820 for Hummel's Mass in B flat and Haydn's Offertorium in D minor. Beethoven's other dedications to Rudolph include the piano concertos 4 and 5, Archduke Trio, Les Adieux and Hammerklavier sonatas.
The world premiere of the entire Missa Solemnis was delayed until April 6, 1824, when through the intervention of Prince Nikolaus Boris Galitzin (1795-1866), it was sung at St. Petersburg. On May 7, 1824, the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were premiered at Vienna in the Court Theater near the Karntnerthor during a program including also the world premiere of the Ninth Symphony. The three Missa Solemnis movements were then itemized merely as "large hymns." Sontag and Ungher sang the female solos, Haitzinger and Preisinger the male solos. It was the mezzo Caroline Ungher who at this concert plucked Beethoven's sleeve to draw his attention to the cheers of the crowd that he was now too deaf to hear. Henriette Sontag (1806-1854) the soprano, was at the time a sweet sixteen.
Despite these first performances in concert surroundings, Beethoven himself never ceased regarding the Missa Solemnis as a religious work. "During the work on this grand Mass, my chief purpose was to evoke in both the singers and hearers religious sentiments that would abide permanently," he wrote to Andreas Streicher September 16, 1824.
Each of the five sections of the Ordinary of the Mass is composed as an extended symphonic movement. Where the liturgical text itself repeats, as in the opening Kyrie - a movement that he inscribed "Coming from the heart, may it go to the heart" the musical recapitulation agrees with the textual. In the Gloria he follows prevalent custom of the time by beginning with Gloria in excelsis Deo ("Glory to God in the highest"), the Angels' words on the night of the Nativity. For the next phrase Et in terra pax ("Peace on earth") he shifts suddenly to soft low voices, all the more dramatic because of the contrast. Next comes Laudamus te ("We praise thee") bursting forth in a fortissimo return to the upward rushing scale incipit of the Gloria. Each further phrase in the text is plumbed to the depths or raised to the heights in Beethoven's most concentrated and intense manner. To emphasize omnipotens ("Almighty") he unleashes the three trombones, heretofore silent, in a stupendous B flat chord. Qui tollis peccata mundi ("Who takest away the sins of the world") is his cue for a change to the tender plea of a Larghetto personalized by interjections of "ah" or "oh" miserere nobis ("have mercy on us"). At Quoniam tu solus sanctus ("Because thou alone art holy") Beethoven veers from a slow 2/4 back to an allegro moderato 3/4, then next to a 4/4 fugue that starts with basses singing in gloria Dei Patris, amen ("in the glory of God the Father, amen"). Here resound echoes of Handel's Amen chorus. Not even after all these individual characterizations of each phrase is Beethoven done. At the frenetic climax of reiterated Amens he returns to the opening Gloria in excelsis Deo material. Heard at the outset of this vast paean, and now again at the close, the exultant Angels' greeting now becomes the more powerful because it served as exordium.
Describing the Credo, Vincent d'lndy wrote: "With it we enter the cathedral, not to leave it again. The architectural arrangement is a marvel of construction, a miracle of musical equilibrium. The three grand divisions expose first faith in one God, second in the Incarnate Deity, third in the vivifying Holy Spirit. The final fugue in 3/2, setting the text Et vitam saecu/i venturi ('And the life of the world to come'), is of altogether admirable luminosity. As replete with stretti, contrary motion, and diminutions as Bach's finest fugues, it also rises to supreme poetry in its depiction of the joys of heaven. Lippi and Giovanni da Fiesole imagined these joys no more ecstatically.
In the Sanctus he bows to liturgical usage by inserting a lengthy instrumental praeludium to the Benedictus qui venit ("Blessed is he who cometh"), thus giving the celebrant of the Mass time to consecrate the bread and wine. The Benedictus itself unfolds as if the slow movement of a concerto for solo violin, voices, and orchestra."
The last of the five grand divisions of the Missa Solemnis begins in a key exceptional for Beethoven: B minor. Two bassoons answered by solo bass endow the entrance-section with a poignancy hardly matched elsewhere. Beethoven himself called this movement a prayer for "inner peace and outer peace." However, midway through, alarums and excursions of battle (sounding at first from a distance) interrupt his plea for peace. The fury grows into a lashing instrumental presto only quieted by choral interjection of another plangent entreaty to the "lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world" for peace at the close of this fretful existence.
And so terminates the mighty drama of Beethoven's close-to-superhuman struggle. After sorrow and travail, he attains in the last pages of this nonpareil masterpiece a joy and peace that pass mortal understanding.