There are musical works of such conceptual scope, majesty and grandeur that they should not be performed too often, lest they become commonplace. One thinks of the B-minor Mass and the Passions of Bach, Wagener's Ring, and a number of symphonies by Mahler. Of these, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is given on a too-regular bases, and has become so well known that its sublimity is diminished, for the listener, through familiarity. Mercifully, the same has not occurred with Beethoven's Missa solemnis, because its length and difficulty ensure that performances will be relatively rare.
Beethoven was never conventionally religious. Although apparently a believer in god, his faith was pantheistic rather than confined to a particular doctrine. The Missa solemnis was planned originally as a tribute to his friend and patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria, a son of the Emperor, on the occasion of Rudolf's elevation to the rank of Cardinal-Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia. His investiture took place in the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Cologne in 1820, but the Missa grew beyond suitable proportions, even for such an august occasion. It was not completed until 1823.
Beethoven became obsessed in the exploring the literal meaning of the Mass text, ignoring the by-then-ossified traditional understanding not from any theological dispute with Catholic reaching, but from a desire to universalize a commonly-known text, and a typical artist's need for thoroughness. For this reason he looked back to earlier models, studying Gregorian plainchant modes and Baroque oratorios, in particular Handel's Messiah. Evidence of these is plain throughout the Missa solemnis, particularly in the Credo. Beethoven's use of a traditional text as the foundation for an exploration of new directions is akin to Renaissance painters' use of common Biblical themes as the basis for arrangements of colors, shapes, textures and proportions. In both cases, the superficial narrative is intended to appeal to the naïve listener (including the censor); the connoisseur is expected to penetrate beyond the surface.
The most familiar Beethoven is the creator of dramatic middle-period symphonies such as the prototypical Fifth, with its progression from darkness to light, expressed through a conflict between minor and major modes and a fundamental unity based on rhythmic cells. The Beethoven of the late string quartets, piano sonatas and Missa solemnis is characterized more by extended melody. Even the Ninth Symphony, seemingly modeled on the same dramatic plan as the Fifth, is better understood through its melodic development than through its rhythms and motives. The source of this late style is the least-frequently performed of Beethoven's middle-period symphonies, the Sixth, or Pastorale. This work, with its extended plateaux of static harmony based on melodic sequences, is inspired by Beethoven's identification with nature as the particularly the Missa solemnis. Beethoven, almost completely cut off from society through his by-then profound deafness, found refuge in is love for nature and its regenerative powers.
Naturalism enters the Missa in several ways and places: in the literal contrast between heaven and earth through the opposition of high and low registers in the Gloria, in the solo flute's birdcalls accompanying the "Et incarnatus est" (Beethoven's quite earthy image of the Incarnation), and most conclusively in the Agnus, whose "prayer for inward and outward peace" counterpoises warlike military fanfares of trumpets and drums with a pastoral 6/8 meter for "Dona nobis pacem", a direct descendent of the "Shepherd's Song" which is the Sixth Symphony's final movement.
The dialectic between traditional and innovative approaches to text setting extends throughout the Missa. On one hand, the outer sections of the Kyrie are assigned mainly to the chorus, whose monumentality contrasts with the more lyrical, soloistic Christe. Both the Gloria and Credo culminate in extended fugues. These are typical usages in Classical masses. On the other hand, Beethoven liberates the trombones from their traditional function doubling the lower three choral lines; their first entrance, accompanying the word "omnipotentem" in the Gloria, is as terrifying, and serves the same purpose, as their first, late entrance in the Sixth Symphony, where they provide a climax to the storm. The solemn interpolations of the trombones also give the Sanctus much of its quiet dignity and sense of occasion.
The use of birdcalls by the flute in the Credo, to suggest a completely human quality for the Incarnation, has already been mentioned. Another instrumental characterization is the violin solo in the Benedictus, whose repeatedly falling arpeggios symbolize an angel (who comes in the name of the Lord) descending to earth: the antithesis of the traditional view of this text, which looks to the ethereal, transcendent heavenly beings for a hoped-for liberation from earthly cares - another example of Beethoven's humanist, nature-worshipping orientation.
Beethoven's most important innovations, however, are structural. Ever the symphonist, he creates from the disjunct sequence of texts a coherent sequence of movements, each fulfilling a Classical symphonic role. The formal arrangement is not arbitrary, nor constrained by an a priori determination of structural function; rather, it comes from a close reading of the texts.
The five sections of the Mass Ordinary are not sung consecutively in the liturgy. These texts, though, remain constant for all occasions. Other sections, together called the Proper, vary according to the Church calendar, and are interpolated between the parts of the Ordinary. The only sections of the Ordinary which are contiguous within the liturgy are the Kyrie and Gloria. This makes Beethoven's treatment of the two movements, in which the Kyrie functions as a gigantic slow introduction to the mostly-fast Gloria, perfectly understandable, and also shifts the textual priority from a questioning "Kyrie eleison" to the affirmative "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus."
The traditional heart of the Mass is the Credo, a statement of the essential beliefs of the Catholic Church. Fro Beethoven, the Credo becomes an opportunity to explore archaic polyphony, with meticulous text setting in a relatively orthodox framework. The movement as a whole fulfils the symphonic function of the Scherzo, or dance movement. An actual dance form might seem trivial; Beethoven chooses the closest acceptable approximation, the march (the Army of God marching to moral victory?). Although according to Classical symphonic models the dance movement comes third among the usual four movements, in his late period Beethoven typically places it second, as in the Ninth Symphony. Perhaps the source of this impulse can be found here.
This is also the most obviously studied movement in the Missa. For the Mystery of "Et incarnatus est", instead of the normal mayor or minor mode Beethoven reaches back into antiquity for the Gregorian mode on D (the key of the entire Missa), the Dorian, achieving a monastic aura. For "Et resurrexit" he chooses the Mixolydian mode, the mode on G, instead of G major, as a route to the triumphant C major of "Et ascendit". Throughout the Credo, as in the Gloria, Beethoven's literal word painting is reminiscent of earlier models: the hushed "et invisibilium" countered by the shout of "visibilium", the falling octaves on "descendit", the murky descent to "et sepultus est", the ecstatic rising scales on "et ascendit in coelum", the opposition of the lively, assertive "vivos" and the collapse on "et mortuos", the rising scale on "et exspecto resurrectionem". The entire movement is crowned by an elaborate fugue which, following the model of Handel, ends in a dramatically slower tempo. Despite these recollections of earlier traditions, Beethoven's true allegiance to humanism pokes through in the triumphant setting of "et Homo factus est". The interposition of all these "effects" largely defeats the clearly-intended unifying tendency of the recurring "Credo" march, an unfortunate fault which cannot be found elsewhere in the Missa.
The true heart of Beethoven's Missa solemnis is the Sanctus, a mostly slow movement whose subtle contrast between tempos - Adagio (Sanctus) and Andante (Benedictus) - is reminiscent of the alternating tempos in the equivalent movement of the Ninth Symphony. Many of the contributors to its emotive force have already been described: the trombones, the solo violin. But the overall nobility of the movement is founded mainly on the restraint of its vocal writing, so unlike the common trumpets-and-drums grandiosity typical of these texts in other Masses.
At several points throughout the Missa, Beethoven suggests his most intimate feelings in the instructions which appear occasionally at the heads of sections. The Kyrie is headed "mit Andacht" (with devotion), an indication repeated at the beginning of the Sanctus. His ultimate intent, and most explicit personalization of the text, is found in the superscription over the first appearance of the words "dona nobis pacem" in the Agnus: "Bitte um inner und äußern Frieden" (prayer for inward and outward peace).
Peace was not a cliché to Beethoven. His struggle to find inner quietude when faced with the loss of his hearing is documented in the famous "Heiligenstadt Testament" of 1802. War was not unfamiliar to him; he experienced the bombardment of Vienna by Napoleon's army in 1809. To Beethoven, these concepts, like the entire text of the Mass, were not spiritual ideas, but quite material phenomena. The polarities of peace and war, in the world and in the soul, are depicted through the opposition of transparently martial and pastoral strains. The solution to all difficulties can be found in the active love of nature; good is to be found on earth, rather than in heaven. Beethoven's message is a practical and universal one, with the sophisticated awareness of modern times, but without the insecurities of Mahler, his twentieth-century counterpart. Despite the traditional picture of Beethoven as a virtual madman, we find in the creator of the Missa solemnis an eminently wise, sane and balanced guide.
- Jerome Hoberman -