Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

HCS NovemberThe central work of the first concert of Highgate Choral Society in the concert season 2018-2019 is Beethoven’s monumental choral work “Missa Solemnis”. Highgate Choral Society will be joined by four excellent soloists and the New London Orchestra. The conductor is Ronald Corp. 

The concert takes place on Saturday 3 November 2018 at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm. Given that the concert is just a week before the centenary of the Armistice choir and orchestra will start the concert with a performance of Ina Boyle’s work “Soldiers at Peace” which was written in 1916. 

The following blog post is about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. 

1. If you were asked to name Ludwig van Beethoven’s greatest work, you are spoiled for choice. You might consider one of his symphonies to be his greatest work, maybe his third , his fifth or his ninth symphony. One of his piano concertos (maybe No. 5), one of the late string quartets or one of his many piano sonatas might be another contender for his greatest work. Some of you might even want to choose his only opera “Fidelio” with its clear message of freedom and justice, a true work of the period of enlightenment.

I am wondering how many of you would name his Missa Solemnis, a sacred choral work. Beethoven is neither known for his choral works nor was a he a prolific composer of sacred music. His main output for choir before the Missa Solemnis were three choral works which he wrote in the decade after 1800: In 1803 he composed his only oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, Op. 85 – a rather obscure work which is not performed very often. In 1807 he made his first setting of the mass in his “Mass in C major”, Op. 86. It was a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II and it was not well received. Prince Nikolaus asked Beethoven after the first performance “But, my dear Beethoven, what is that you have done?”. The following year (1808) he wrote his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 which is an unusual hybrid somewhere between a choral work and a piano concerto. Nevertheless, Beethoven said several times that he considers his Missa Solemnis to be his “greatest and most accomplished work” (“größtes und gelungenstes Werk”).

2. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in D Major (Missa Solemnis), Op. 123, is a setting of the ordinary mass for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. It is a substantial work and lasts almost 90 minutes.

Beethoven became interested in writing sacred music and in particular mass settings in 1818. He wrote in one of his conversation books:

“Um wahre Kirchenmusik zu schreiben – alle Kirchenchoräle der Mönche durchgehen – auch zu suchen, wie die Absätze in richtigsten Übersetzungen nebst vollkommener Prosodie aller christkatholischen Psalmen und Gesänge überhaupt.

“In order to write true church music, look through all the church chorales of the monks, etc., to find out the most accurate translations of all the sections, also the perfect prosody of all the Christian and Catholic psalms and canticles generally.”

This quote also describes his approach for composing the Missa Solemnis which he started shortly after that. He got a German translation of the text of the mass and was interested in understanding every nuance of the text and translating it into music. Beethoven extensively studied earlier church music, in particular Gregorian chant, Palestrina and Bach. He also admired and was influenced by Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. 

The historical reason for writing his Missa Solemnis are closely connected with Archduke Rudolf, the brother of the Emperor of Austria, Francis I of Austria. Archduke Rudolf was one of Beethoven’s few pupils. In 1803 / 1804 he studied the piano with Beethoven and Beethoven gave him lessons in composition. From 1809 he also become Beethoven’s most important patron and paid him a regular pension. Beethoven was very grateful and dedicated many works to the Archduke. In 1818 rumours began that Archduke Rudolf would receive the highest honours of the Austrian church. In 1819 these rumours were substantiated.  On  24 March 1819 Archduke Rudolf was elected as cardinal and six weeks later on 4 June 1819 he was further elated to Archbishop of Olmütz (Moravia). 9 March 1820 was set as date for his installation as Archbishop.

Beethoven promised Rudolf to write a mass for the occasion of his installation. He was very enthusiastic about this chance and wrote in a letter to the Archduke that this will be “the happiest day of my life”. However, Beethoven was not able to finish the composition in time. He started the firsts sketches of the first movement (Kyrie) in 1819. Towards the end of 1819 he worked on the Gloria, the second movement of the mass. In the first three months of 1820 he made sketches for the third movement (Credo). He completed Credo and the two final movements (Sanctus and Agnus Dei) before August 1822 and then spent considerable time on the orchestration. On 7 January 1823 Beethoven informed the Archduke about the completion of the work and on 19 March 1823. three years after the installation date, he handed over a beautifully copy of the work to Archduke Rudolf.

There are many reasons why Beethoven worked so long on this composition. Initially he concentrated on composing the mass setting.  However, once it was clear he would not make the deadline he worked on other projects in parallel, including the Diabelli variations and his Ninth Symphony. Between 1818 and 1823 there were also long periods of illness. His hearing was completely gone by that time and he regularly used conversation books from 1818 onwards. There were additional strains in his life, because of a legal battle about custody of his nephew Karl, son of his late brother Karl. Beethoven also struggled because of a lack of money and desperately offered his Missa Solemnis to several publishing houses (from 1820 onwards) and tried to get subscriptions from several Royal courts.

The first performance of Missa Solemnis took place on 7 April 1824 in St. Petersburg sponsored by Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an ardent admirer of Beethoven. Beethoven was not present at this performance. Three movements (Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei) were also performed in a theatre in Vienna (Kärtnertortheater) in May 1824 under the title “Three Grand Hymns for Solo and Chorus”. The church authorities only allowed this performance of parts of the mass in a theatre when Beethoven changed the Latin text into a German text and also choose a different title. At the same concert Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture and his Ninth Symphony were premiered. That was the only performance of Missa Solemnis which Beethoven witnessed. He was at that time deaf and could not hear it anymore.

3. Beethoven sets in his Missa Solemnis the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). However, Beethoven takes some licence with the text and made small alterations of the text for musical purposes. He uses the soloists as a kind of second “solistic” choir or chamber choir. He does not give specific movements or parts of movements to solo voices, as had previous composer like Bach in his Mass in B Minor or Mozart in his Mass in C Minor.

a) The first movement Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy. Beethoven asks the performers to sing and play “with devotion” (Mit Andacht). It is the shortest and also probably the most traditional movement of the Missa Solemnis. The work starts with an orchestral introduction. The first Kyrie-section is dominated by the chorus which sings “Kyrie eleison” three times (the first time with responses by the soloists). In the Christe-section the soloists who sing as quartet play a greater role. For the second Kyrie-section Beethoven goes back to structure and musical material of the first Kyrie-section in a modified form.

b) Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God. It starts in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with a opening flourish which is repeated severally times through the movement like a motto. There are great contrasts in tempi, volume, textures and character of the music throughout the movement. The reason for these are the word painting which Beethoven uses and his desire to reflect every detail and nuance of the text in the music. In solemn parts of the music for example the setting of  “et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (And on earth peace to men of good will) or of the word “adoramus te” (we worship thee) the music is generally low and quiet. For the celebratory parts the music is higher, louder and often more complex in its musical structure. The movement ends with two extended fugues to the text “in gloria Dei patris. Amen” (in the glory of God the Father. Amen.) and a last reprise of the Gloria opening flourish.

c) The third movement Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. It is similar in scale as the Gloria. Also in this movement Beethoven uses word painting and sets and orchestrates the words in a nuanced and detailed way which associates a particular phrase or musical idea with a specific image and specific words.

Beethoven as many other composers puts great emphasis on the three middle sections of the movement: incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In particular in the part about the incarnation and the crucifixion the soloists dominate the texture. At the “incarnatus” part, Beethoven uses a solo flute which represents the Holy Ghost and floats high above the musical structure . For the crucifixion the music gets dark and sombre and sforzandos and syncopated rhythms are associated with the images of suffering. For the words “et sepultus est” (and is buried) the music gets lower and lower and almost stops. The resurrection section is again dominated by the chorus and includes ascending scales.

As the Gloria movement also this movement has a specific musical theme, here for the word “Credo” (I believe),  which reoccurs again and again throughout the movement and gives the movement unity. Beethoven even decided to repeat “Credo” several times when the original text does not include a repetition. Also towards the end of this movement is a complex double fugue to the text “Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen” (and the life of the world to come. Amen.) – many say that this fugue setting is one of the most difficult passages of the whole choral repertoire.

d) The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: SanctusOsannaBenedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus is sung in the mass after the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels.

In this mass setting this section starts with the soloist quartet to the text “Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts). The setting is soft and reverent. Also for this movement Beethoven asks the performers to play and sing “with devotion” (Mit Andacht). The next two sections “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua” (Heaven and earth are full of His glory) and “Osanna in excelsis” (Hosanna in the highest) are short fugues for the chorus which are joyful and dancing. After the Osanna there is an orchestral prelude. This continues seamlessly into the Benedictus-section. In this section a solo violin enters which represents the Holy Ghost. It is written in the style of a violin concerto and was therefore also criticised at Beethoven’s time as unsuitable for a mass setting. Traditionally the Osanna-section after the Benedictus is often a repeat of the first Osanna. Beethoven decides to compose a second different Osanna-section.

e) The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem).

The movement begins in a funeral mood with the bass soloist who is soon joined by the men of the choir. During the repetitions of the Agnus Dei the pleas for mercy move up in the voice parts and become more intense. The last line of the text “Dona nobis pacem” is set separately by Beethoven. This phrase gets extensive musical treatment, including fugue structures. Beethoven wrote on the manuscript “Bitte um inneren und äusseren Frieden” (Prayer for inner and outer peace). There are clear allusions to war, because a military style march with distant drums and trumpets disturbs and interrupts the plea for peace. The voices get more anxious and the pleas get more desperate and urgent. The work ends with a final statement of choir “Dona nobis pacem” which is sung loud (forte). The outer signs of war seem to be gone, unclear is whether also inner peace is achieved.

4. Every setting of a sacred texts implicitly asks the question about the relationship of the composer with religion. Beethoven’s personal beliefs are unclear. He was raised a Catholic and spent as a boy much time in the organ loft, where he took lessons. Haydn called him once an atheist. This statement is almost certainly wrong. Some say that a work like the Missa Solemnis could only be written by a profoundly religious man. It seems that he did not have much time for organised religion and was probably not a regular church goer, but he was certainly interested in a more personal belief system. There are many prayers in his diaries and conversation books which always begin with “Dear father”.

His interest in religious sentiments becomes also clear, if one reads about Beethoven’s main aim with this mass setting. He wrote about it in a letter on 16 September 1824 to his friend Andreas Streicher:

“Hauptabsicht war, sowohl bei den Singenden als bei den Zuhörenden religiöse Gefühle zu erwecken und dauernd zu machen.”

“My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings in the singers as well as in the listeners.”

Ultimately we do not know what Beethoven believed and I think the answer to this question is maybe also not that important. Missa Solemnis is without doubt a spiritual work which will hopefully not leave the listeners unmoved. When Beethoven sent the copy to Archduke Rudolf he included a special motto:

“Von Herzen möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen”.

“From the heart – may it go again – to the heart”.

I do not know whether the performance will be a spiritual experience for singers and audience members, but I hope that in any case this motto will be the motto of our performance of this extraordinary work.

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