Among the many celebrated works of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Missa Solemnis (1823) is perhaps his most mysterious. The composer himself regarded it as his greatest composition, a culmination of his life-long desire to join music and philosophy. But compared to well-known works like his Third, Fifth, Sixth, or Ninth Symphonies, the Missa Solemnis has garnered comparatively little acclaim.
In an article on NPR.org in 2006, Jan Swafford called the Missa Solemnis “…the greatest piece never heard.” In fact, performances have been particularly rare in Denver, where it has been presented on only three prior occasions by the Colorado Symphony: March 25, 1945, March 13-15, 1978, and June 7, 2007. In comparison, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been programmed 16 times during that same period.
The reason for this discrepancy is due in large part to the sheer difficulty of the work, requiring an almost superhuman effort on the part of the chorus. But much of the power of the work lies in that struggle and the joy of obstacles overcome.
This hidden gem debuted in 1824, the same years as his Ninth Symphony. In fact, they premiered in back-to-back months — the Missa Solemnis in April and the Ninth Symphony in May. The two works are truly companion pieces, shedding light on Beethoven’s spiritual worldview — where the “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth is a hymn to humanity, the Missa Solemnis is a Hymn to God.
Beethoven himself had a profound belief in God, but his faith was more spiritual and less dictated by religious dogma. Though born a Roman Catholic he had no interest in organized religion. In his mind, God was simply too pervasive, too omnipotent, to be encapsulated by mere human ceremonies.
Through these two works, Beethoven makes a plea for humankind to genuflect before God, while simultaneously imploring humanity to turn towards one another for answers to life’s many obstacles. The path to peace, he suggests, is bestowed not from above, but from within each and every human being.
Perhaps the French composer, theorist, and teacher Vincent d’Indy encapsulated the Missa Solemnis best when he wrote, “We stand in the presence of one of the greatest masterworks in the realm of music.” This is a work that rightly resides in the same rarified air as the much revered Ninth Symphony.
Like most Masses, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is in five movements:
Kyrie: Perhaps the most traditional of the Mass movements, the Kyrie is in a traditional ABA’ structure, with stately choral writing in the first movement section and more contrapuntal voice leading in the Christe, which also introduces the four vocal soloists.
Gloria: Quickly shifting textures and themes highlight each portion of the Gloria text, in a beginning to the movement that is almost encyclopedic in its exploration of 3/4 time. The movement ends with the first of the work’s two massive fugues, on the text “In gloria Dei patris. Amen”, leading into a recapitulation of the initial Gloria text and music.
Credo: One of the most remarkable movements to come from Beethoven’s pen opens with a chord sequence that will be used again in the movement to effect modulations. The Credo, like the Gloria, is an often disorienting, mad rush through the text. The poignant modal harmonies for the “et incarnatus” yield to ever more expressive heights through the “crucifixus”, and into a remarkable, a cappella setting of the “et resurrexit” that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the closing fugue on “et vitam venturi” that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire, when the subject returns at doubled tempo for a thrilling conclusion.
The form of the Credo is divided into four parts: (I) allegro ma non troppo through “descendit de coelis” in B-flat; (II) “Incarnatus est” through “Resurrexit” in D; (III) “Et ascendit” through the Credo recapitulation in F; (IV) Fugue and Coda “et vitam venturi saeculi, amen” in B-flat.
Sanctus: Up until the benedictus of the Sanctus, the Missa solemnis is of fairly normal classical proportions. But then, after an orchestral preludio, a solo violin enters in its highest range — representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth — and begins the Missa’s most transcendently beautiful music, in a remarkably long extension of the text.
Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us”) that begins with the men’s voices alone in B minor yields, eventually, to a bright D-major prayer “dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”) in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is suddenly and dramatically interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli), but after repeated pleas of “Miserere!”, eventually recovers and brings itself to a stately conclusion.
In this famous portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, Beethoven can be seen working on the Missa Solemnis in D major.
By Nick Dobreff https://www.gracechorale.org/progra…/2013/8/29/sample-post