Music for the Heart
By Peter Rutenberg
It is one of the grandest visionary statements concerning 'eternity' ever penned. At the same time, it is one of the most unusual, even unorthodox readings of the liturgy in the history of western music. The bridge between these points of opposition must surely pass over a chasm of immense emotional turmoil and creative stirrings. In the end, it must also represent the absolute triumph of will over adversity - and by reasoned extension - of good over evil. Such is the sweep of Beethoven's victory in the monumental Missa solemnis.
Melancholy and inertia colored the years after 1812 in Beethoven's life. The Napoleonic wars and the financial straits they brought heaped external concerns on a composer already beset with rapidly increasing deafness and a litany of personal woes. The impossibility of achieving closeness with a woman at last acknowledged, Beethoven suffered depression in the face of a future fraught with domestic solitude and silence. The one glimmer of hope -the assumption of fatherly duties for his dying brother's son Karl - had been dashed in a last minute codicil which kept the boy's mother as co-guardian and forced a succession of legal maneuvers whose outcome would be unfavorable to Uncle Ludwig for a sustained period of time.
The paucity of compositions during this period belies Beethoven's preoccupations with worldly concerns. It is no small irony that even as he was nearing complete deafness, the world was hearing less of his musical voice. But the tide was turning to the accompaniment of the massive "Hammerklavier" Sonata, as it has come to be known, completed in the summer of 1818 and dedicated to the one benefactor who had stood by him through all the lean times - his dear friend, the Archduke Rudolph. It was a mere prelude to something on an even grander scale on which Beethoven was soon at work. The Archduke was to be made a cardinal and subsequently elevated to Archbishop of Olmutz in Moravia the following year. The installation was set for March 1820. In a letter of congratulations, Beethoven would write, "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."
It would have been an anachronism at that time to call for a "reality check." Nonetheless, when one considers the sheer gravity of the Missa solemnis in its finished state versus the amount of time between the promise and the red-letter day, it is clear that the odds were against the composer. He made good progress and managed to squeeze in several other works along the way. What he didn't count on, what he couldn't have foreseen, was the extent to which the Mass would begin to take on a life of its own - richly endowed with immense proportions of size and scope in each section - nor the sudden legal trouble that would crop up at the worst possible moment, causing a wretched distraction. The opportunity had passed, but the work continued in earnest and was complete by the autumn of 1822. With barely a moment to catch his breath, Beethoven launched a new and equally monumental project, the Ninth Symphony, all but completing it the following year.
Taking a breather from this hectic pace, the composer set about procuring some concerts for his latest creations. Beethoven worried about the sophistication of his Viennese audience and reached instead for the loftier realms of Berlin. In short order he was prevailed upon in a most touching manner to reconsider, and on May 7, 1824, in the Karntner District Theater in Vienna, the audience was treated to a Beethoven extravaganza including the The Consecration of the House overture, the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei from the Missa solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony!
Charles Rosen, in his formidable study - The Classical Style (W. W. Norton, 1972) - summarizes the musical language of this Mass with characteristic aplomb: "The Missa solemnis in D is perhaps Beethoven's most considerable single achievement. With it he developed a manner so intellectually powerful as to be completely adequate even for the purely doctrinal sections of the mass. The Mass in D provided a musical equivalent for almost every word of the Creed: the music is no longer just a framework, a setting, against which the words are to be understood. Not even the greatest difficulties are shirked. The magnificent and seemingly endless series of crossing scales at the end of the Credo, which seem to go ever higher and lower like a Jacob's ladder as the complexity of sound hides the new beginnings, must be accepted as Beethoven's audible image of eternity, and they are the equivalent of the words, 'I believe in the life to come, world without end, amen.' "
What Rosen is describing hearkens back to the musica reservata style of the 16th century, in which every word is described, portrayed or enacted by a methodical and deliberate application of various compositional techniques. Even as Beethoven is exploring the fullest tether of Classicism in the bold assurance of his later life, he as so many others is recalling a key early tradition and giving it new voice. Lest we dawdle too long in austere reflection, taking the lifeless and rather forbidding busts or portraits of a severe artist as our model, we would do well to remember that the Missa solemnis was composed over a number of years - a time of great activity, productivity, and vivacity in the composer's life - a time of becoming, or, as we shall soon see, not becoming.
The contemporaneous biography The Life of Beethoven by Schindler & Moscheles (1841), as quoted in Norman Lebrecht's The Book of Musical Anecdotes, reminds us of the vagaries of life in the early days of the Mass's composition: "He again moved to Dobling. On arranging his musical matters there, he missed the score of the first movement 'Kyrie' of his grand Mass. All search for it proved to be in vain, and Beethoven was irritated to the highest degree at the loss, which was irreparable, when lo! several days afterwards the whole 'Kyrie' was found, but in what condition! The large sheet, which looked just like waste paper, seemed to the old housekeeper the very thing for wrapping up boots, shoes, and kitchen utensils, for which purpose she had torn most of them in half. When Beethoven saw the treatment to which this production of his genius had been subjected, he could not refrain from laughing.''
Nor should we, for joy in our good fortune, on hearing such glorious, ageless, and empowering music.