Missa Solemnis

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Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Born December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


“My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill spiritual feelings not only in the singers but in the listeners.” – Beethoven

In 1818, Beethoven learned that his friend and patron, Archduke Nicholas Rudolph was to become a cardinal of the Church and Archbishop of Olmutz. For the occasion, Beethoven decided to write a Mass and the installation was scheduled for March 1820. On June 4, 1819, the composer wrote to him: “The day on which a High Mass composed by me is 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.” The date was fixed for March 20, 1820. The composer missed the deadline by several years. It was not completed until December 1822. In January 1823 the composer began marketing the work for 50 ducats. On April 18, 1824 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Prince Galitzin underwrote the first performance. Beethoven, had in fact, conducted the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei (identified as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voice” at the premier of his Ninth Symphony.)

In 1818, Beethoven wrote in his private Diary, “In order to write true church music, go through all the ecclesiastical chants of the monks. Also look there for the stanzas in the most correct translations along with the most perfect prosody of all Christian-Catholic psalms and hymns in general. “ Between 1819 and 1823 he worked on the Missa solemnis. Philip Huscher wrote: “It was the composition that demanded more of Beethoven’s time and thought than any other at any time in his career.” Even though he was producing his Ninth Symphony and his late piano sonatas during this time, the Missa solemnis was on his mind, albeit in the background. In 1819, he put pen to paper and began to write. In his famous 1820 portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler commissioned by Franz and Antonie Brentano, Beethoven holds his pen over the Missa solemnis manuscript.

Nominally a Catholic, Beethoven was well studied in other religions, but Christianity was predominant in his life. In his diary (Tagebuch) he spoke of God, always addressing him as Dear Father, and he saw Christ as a fellow sufferer. Opus 123 would be his second mass, having written one in 1807 on commission from Prince Nicholas Esterhazy. In summary of that work, Beethoven noted, “I believe I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated.” In a snippy reply, the Prince commented:“ My dear Beethoven, what have you done?”

Musical settings of the Catholic mass (Latin: missa)
The Catholic mass has two basic components: the Ordinary and the Proper. The Ordinary refers to five parts, which are included in every mass: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei (modified in Requiem masses in 1970.) The Proper refers to prayers, communion, and scripture readings and other elements, which are related to specific observance such as to the day or the time of year and therefore can be somewhat variable. Generally speaking the musical mass uses the Ordinary.

The creation of Missa solemnis
The struggles that Beethoven endured during the writing of his Missa solemnis were extreme and seemingly unending. Included in his preparatory studies were the Dodecachordon, a 1547 treatise on church modes and the Instituzioni armoniche of 1558, treating of theory, history, speculation, and criticism. He had the entire mass translated into German in order to capture the nuance of every word. Jameson Marvin concluded “Through Beethoven’s comprehension of modal theory, Renaissance polyphony, Handelian counterpoint, and Haydnesque Cantata-Mass form, he molds a new genre in which, in his hands, becomes by far the most expressive setting of any mass of the 19th century.”

Beginning in August of 1819, Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s personal secretary and first biographer recorded: “It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the living room, behind a locked door we heard the master singing parts of the fugue in the Credo—singing, howling, stamping. After we had been listening for a long time to the most awful scene, and were about to go away, the door opened and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features calculated to excite fear. He looked as if he had been in mortal combat with the whole host of contrapuntist, his everlasting enemies…His words were confused, as if he felt embarrassed at being overheard. Soon he began to speak of the day’s events and said with notable self-control “What a mess! Everyone has run away, and I have not had anything to eat since yesterday noon.”

At the conclusion of that year he wrote, “When I think of the events of the year 1819, I remember his mental excitement and I must admit that never before and never since that time have I seem him in a similar state of removal from the world.” Later, Schindler observed, “Every movement as he approached it became bigger than he had imagined.” 

Kyrie assai sostenuto “Mit Andacht” (with devotion). This section is written in ABA form. The first begins with the Kyrie eleison. It is sung three times, and answered responsorially by a soloist, representing the priest. Christe eleison is the second section: the music becomes darker and more serious. The final section, Kyrie eleison repeats the initial beseeching for mercy.

Gloria: Beethoven expands his enthusiasm for God and praising God in a grand opening flourish. The Gloria becomes dramatic, with many changes of tempi and textures. Beethoven explained, “No bar is inexpressive.” At the end, he repeats the word Gloria twice, which is not in the Catholic text.

The Credo is the longest movement. The text is the longest, and he expands his musical setting accordingly. He uses ancient modes for the text Et incarnates est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine to lend a old coloring which sounds quite mystical. A solo flute represents the Holy Spirit above the chorus. In the Crucifixus section, Beethoven marks the suffering of Christ with syncopated rhythms, and jolting sforzandis (sudden loud and soft sounds).

The Sanctus becomes more joyful, even moving into a fast section to mark the energetic praise of God.

The Benedictus: Beethoven elected to combine this in the Sanctus section. The linkage is marked by a beautiful Preludium, which includes a stunning violin solo.

The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God): Herein Beethoven selects a minor key (b minor) and uses a solemn pace to match the words and the pleading: “Oh Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” In the last section, he takes more liberties with the mass, using only the phrase “dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace,) rather than the full text, which was traditional in the mass. Suddenly, the orchestration radically changes and a military style march occurs. Musicologists have often stated that the composer, at this point, is pleading for outward (political) peace as well as inner peace.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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