Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

April 16, 1972, 07:30 PM
Roger Wagner, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Missa Solemnis Op. 123 Ludwig van Beethoven
Claudine Carlson , Mezzo Soprano
Val Stuart , Tenor
Douglas Lawrence , Baritone
Marilyn Gilbert , Soprano

Annotator, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Missa Solemnis
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainer Habsburg (1792-1835) was the youngest son of Leopold II and brother of the  reigning Emperor Franz II. He had probably become a pupil of Beethoven in 1803, when Rudolph was fifteen and the composer thirty-three. He eventually became the co-adjutor of the Prince-Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia. After the death of the Archbishop, Rudolph, now a Cardinal, was expected to succeed to the archbishopric. In June, 1819, Rudolph was notified that he would, indeed, become Archbishop of Olmütz on March 20, 1820. When Beethoven heard about this, he wrote to Rudolph:
"The day on which 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; and God will enlighten me so that my poor talents may contribute to the glorification of that solemn day . .. "
Since Beethoven had already done some preliminary sketches on the Mass from the time that rumors of Rudolph's Impending promotion had reached him, he obviously expected to have the Mass completed in time for "that solemn day."
Beethoven flung himself furiously into the project. We are given a glimpse of the compositorial cataclysm by Anton Schindler:
"From behind the closed door of one of the parlours we could hear the master working on the fugue of the Credo, singing, yelling, stamping his feet. When we had heard enough of this almost frightening performance and were about to depart, 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." As usual, Schindler cannot be taken too literally. At that date (August, 1819) Beethoven was probably working on the Gloria fugue.
"There is no reason to doubt his original intention of completing the work in time for Rudolph's installation. But we are familiar with the process by which a composition which he had intended for a certain date grew as he thought about it and how, as he labored on it, it swelled so gigantically in his hands that it was difficult for him to carry it; how he revised though the final manuscript of the Mass is written on excellent quality paper, Beethoven erased one spot of it so many times that he rubbed a hole in it - and how therefore what was to be ready in six or nine months took years for completion. Of none of his works is this truer than of the Missa Solemnis, which he just could not let go and from which he finally had to tear himself away with an almost physical effort. It was not to be ready till 1823." (Marek: Beethoven, pp. 546-7)
As is often the case with men of great talent, Beethoven occasionally did things that not even the most sympathetic biographer could excuse. The negotiations for the publication of the Missa are a glaring example. He offered the Missa to seven publishers and received fees from several of them. Writing with Machiavellian ingenuousness, he stated in one letter:
"Since I understand nothing whatever about business affairs…With my usual frankness I must confess to you ... since I too should not like to appear as if I had had to refuse an offer which I had already accepted - all of which you will find quite natural ... I trust that you in turn will treat me all the more favorably in the publication of my collected works which, as you know, I have very much at heart...”
He made promises only to break his word, played one offer against another, constantly exacted new conditions and invented new excuses, all the time protesting that he was the victim of circumstances and that he really did love "honesty and sincerity." Peters earned Beethoven's fury when he refused to accept the Bagatelles, Op. 119, as a substitute for the Missa. "The cleft between his ordinary morality - that is, the manner in which he dealt with 'mere' businessmen - 'hell hounds' he called them - and his artistic morality was as wide as the difference 'twixt amorous and villainous.' For a parallel example one must look forward to Wagner, who sold the publishing rights to Das Rheingold to Wesendonk- and soon sold it again to Schott. At least Beethoven tried to pay his debts; Wagner never bothered." (Ibid., p. 559) Publication rights were finally awarded to Schott and Sons in 1824.
"At the end of 1822, Beethoven conceived another plan. Instead of merely publishing the Mass, he wanted to sell prepublication manuscript copies of it to whatever patrons he could interest, particularly the sovereigns of Europe." (Ibid., p. 559) He wrote to fourteen courts and received ten subscriptions. The King of Prussia inquired through his embassy if Beethoven would prefer a royal order or the fifty ducats subscription fee. There was no hesitation.  Beethoven preferred the fifty ducats. Louis XVIII of France was more generous. He paid the fee and sent Beethoven a medal of heavy gold. We probably should be grateful that Beethoven had the sensitivity not to ask the Archduke Rudolph to subscribe. One of the subscribers, the Russian Prince Galitzin, was responsible for the first performance of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg in April, 1824. Only the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were performed in Vienna during Beethoven's lifetime.
Much has been written about Beethoven the revolutionary, the man who thrust Classical music into the Romantic age. People, however, are never as simple as the labels affixed to them; least of all, Beethoven. In the thousands of words written about the Missa Solemnis, much has been written, some of it rather fatuous, of Beethoven's severance from the past and his disdain of traditional dogma and liturgy - in this most ancient ritual of faith!  (Writers tend to attribute their own attitudes to their subjects-this writer IS no exception!) A recent study (1970) of the traditional roots of the Missa serves to balance the picture of the wild-eyed dreamer. We are grateful to New Roads to Old Ideas in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis by Warren Kirkendale, published in The Creative World of Beethoven edited by Paul Henry Lang and published by W. W. Norton, for the following well documented  information.
It is obvious from the sketchbooks, the conversation books, and letters that Beethoven did a great deal of research into the text and traditions of the Mass preparatory to and during his composition of the Missa Solemnis. We find works of Palestrina copied into the sketchbooks. He had the Latin text carefully translated, word by word, so that he could more accurately set the text. As Kirkendale states, Beethoven was "not merely the impetuous innovator who is celebrated in popular literature. Today we see that he not only retained traditional thought to an  unexpected degree, but even uncovered much older, buried traditions, and formed musical 'ideas' in the plain and concrete sense of the century in which he was born - naturally with an incomparably freer, personal vocabulary. And this perhaps nowhere so profoundly as in his Missa Solemnis, the work which belongs to the oldest musical tradition, the work which be believed to be his greatest."
The orchestra begins the Kyrie with repeated tonic chords as does the chorus twenty measures later. This was a traditional formula for this text in festive Masses. (Biber: Missa Sancti Henrici [1701), Cavalli: Missa concertata [1656), and Benevoli's famous polychoral Mass [1628)) Since the early Baroque era, this topos was used to portray God the immovable mover, a concept that goes back to the Greek Stoics. In the solemn liturgy of Beethoven's time (and it must be emphasized that the Missa was written for performance as an integral part of the liturgy), the celebrant, as he intones Gloria in excelsis Deo, raises his arms to express joy. Beethoven followed the example of Albrechtsberger in beginning the movement with a rapidly rising melody. Conversely, at adoramus te (where the priest bowed his head), he followed tradition by lowering pitch and dynamics. Being Beethoven, he lowered both further than anyone else had. At Pater omnipotens, he stretched the traditional downward leap of an octave to that of a twelfth and reserves for this word the first entry of the trombones as well as suggesting that at "omnipotens ganze Orgel posaun im Pedal." Similarly, he uses the trombones at judicare in the Credo to symbolize divine power (just as the King James Bible translates tuba [shofar] as trumpet, so the German equivalent is Posaune, i.e., trombone). As a further example of Bachian literalism, Beethoven, after much deliberation, selected the chord of A-flat minor (seven flats) - an extreme and remote harmonic setting for the extremum judicium (The last Judgment).
At the invocation of Christ enthroned in heaven - qui sedes ad dexteram Patris Beethoven uses the majestic dotted rhythm, the mosaical emblem of the Sun King, which during the eighteenth century had become the topos for majesty par excellence. At this place, as in many other places during the Missa, he uses the tremolo to portray the prostrate worshiper in awe of the Almighty. This is particularly noticeable at the opening of the Sanctus. He was to use the same imagery with the same minor ninth chord in the Ninth Symphony at Ueber Stemen muss er wohnen.
For a century it had been fashionable to use the technique of the Credo Mass, repeating the word credo before various articles of the Creed. Beethoven, however, only uses it three times: for each Person of the Trinity. Also, each Person is introduced by a short orchestral prelude, the prerogative of gods and kings in opera. A subtle differentiation is used between the identical settings for the Father and for the Son and the slightly different introduction for the Spiritum Sanctum qui ex Patre Filoque procedit.
Traditionally et incarnatus est, the words which proclaim the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, have been set off from other parts of the Credo by a marked change of style. In the eighteenth century a concertante style, with solo voices and often elaborate virtuosity, was used. By 1820 there was a return to the stile antico of the “Palestrina style," often a cappella. For this most solemn section Beethoven wrote a quasi-Gregorian melody. In this he followed the example of Michael Haydn (1737-1806), at that time the most popular composer of sacred music in Austria. It is written in the Dorian mode, and recent scholarship supplies a reason for this choice. In the conversation books of late 1819 and early 1820, reference is made to a book by Zarlino which, in speaking of the Dorian mode, states that "Cassiodorus says, that it is the donor of modesty and the preserver of chastity." (letter of Cassiodorus to Boethius ca. 508 A.D.) Therefore, Beethoven's choice of the "chaste" mode for the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. A prominent feature of the Et Jncarnatus is a long, slow, fluttering trill in the high register of the flute (another touch sanctioned by tradition). This musically portrays the Holy Spirit in the traditional form of a dove hovering over the Virgin. Since the medieval mind understood the preincarnate Christ as logos, it was accepted that Mary had conceived through the ear as the word enters the body through the ear. At the end of the section the fertilizing breath of the Holy Spirit (the flute) becomes silent and at Et homo factus est the solo tenor thrusts the music into a major tonality (in the sketches Beethoven noted hier menschlich - here  human). The monotone declamation at Credo in Spiritum Sanctum has often been referred to as proof of Beethoven's indifference towards Catholic dogma and, for that matter, religion in general. The fact of the matter is that this type of setting had been usual in Masses since the seventeenth century. Also, this treatment agrees with Beethoven's statement that religion and figured bass are "closed subjects, on which there should be no further dispute."
The final fugue of the Credo is remarkable for two things: its length and subdued dynamics. Beethoven does not picture life everlasting as a vigorous physical existence, but as peace, removed from the bustle and noise of life on earth. In his sketches he wrote the motto Plaudite amici- in anticipation of his famous last words, "Plaudite, amici, finita est comoedia" (Applaud, friends, the comedy is over).
The quiet Praeludium between the Sanctus and Benedictus, though unique in orchestral Masses, has a traditional liturgical purpose. This is not a prelude to the Benedictus, but rather exactly what Beethoven calls it: a quiet organ improvisation (in this case orchestrated) to accompany the preparations for the moment of consecration. At the moment when Christ becomes present on the altar, the solo violin (with winds) enters like a point of light, dispelling all darkness. According to Kirkendale (in 1970) and Grossheim (in 1828), the lovely pastoral movement that follows is indebted to Handel's Messiah, specifically the aria He shall feed His flock- a fitting imagery for the liturgical appearance of the Good Shepherd.
In the Agnus Dei, Beethoven follows the normal harmonic plan of the eighteenth century by beginning in the relative minor and returning to the tonic only with the Dona nobis pacem. He referred to this key ash moll schwarze Tonart - B minor, the black tonality. To emphasize the mood the bass soloist creeps in the depths of the orchestra - the traditional topos for humility.
The final movement, Dona nobis pacem, returns to the pastoral idiom of the Italian Baroque, violently troped by the sounds of war. Beethoven in 1809 had heard these sounds as Napoleon's troops advanced to Vienna. As another survivor of that period wrote: "But frightful and terrible is the sound of the trumpet when it announces the near advance of the enemy."
"Peace is eventually restored, and the pastoral music returns. It leads into a fugato on a subject from Handel's Hallelujah chorus ... We have seen that he studied Messiah while composing the Mass ... As in the "Battle Symphony" the patriotic song of the French succumbs to that of the English, so in the Mass the military fanfares cede to the most popular piece in the repertoire of English sacred music." (Kirkendale) The second interruption is a rapid orchestral fugue, presto. Its cerebral form appropriately pictures inner turmoil which finally gives way to the anguished prayer for peace. In his sketches for the Agnus Dei Beethoven had written "Strength of the sentiments of inner peace above all... Victory!" It is logical to assume as Kirkendale does that this alludes to the familiar image of the lamb of God carrying the flag of victory.
At the beginning of the score the composer wrote: "Von Herzen - Moge es zu Herzen gehen" (From the heart- may it go to the heart). It is hoped that these few comments will help the listener to receive this vast, complex, exalted, but always human work.

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