Beethoven: Missa Solemnis Program Notes

Missa Solemnis by Beethoven
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Festival Orchestra and guest soloists
May 15, 2013 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning
Program notes by Rick Phillips

When you come right down to it, Beethoven didn’t compose a lot of choral music. There are three early works – the under-rated Mass in C, the rarely-performed oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80. Of course, there are choruses in the opera Fidelio before his last two choral masterpieces – the finale to the Symphony No. 9, and the great Missa Solemnis. Through most of his life, Beethoven wrestled with the restrictions and limitations of eighteenth century musical form and structure, fighting to expand them or to toss them aside and invent new ones that would allow his musical art to be better expressed. The first two punched chords that grab our attention at the top of his Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” would be one example, or the improvisational solo part at the beginning of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5, or the addition of soloists and chorus in the aforementioned finale of the great Symphony No. 9, “Choral.” Beethoven had a deep knowledge and appreciation for the choral masterpieces of the past – from the Renaissance composers like Palestrina, through the Baroque masterworks by J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel, right up to W.A. Mozart and his one-time teacher, F.J. Haydn. But with his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven strived to expand the choral genre by assimilating the styles of church music with concert music – to combine the spirituality and devotion of church music with the expression and power of the symphony.

The result is a magnificent work for all time that is not so much a celebration of belief, as a search for and affirmation of faith in humanity. Beethoven was a child of the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. He believed whole-heartedly in the then-burgeoning concepts of the nineteenth century Romantic Age, the age of the individual, human rights and the subsequent slow rise of democracy. In the Missa Solemnis, religious humility and modesty are downplayed to exhibit the noble pride of a man who believed that there was something of God within him, and hopefully in all of us. The music of the Missa Solemnis has radiance and spirituality as well as strength, passion and compassion.

But change and development in art and music rarely come easily. Apparently, during the composition of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven was often under duress. His friend Anton Schindler reported hearing, “singing, howling and stamping… then the door opened and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features… as if he had been in mortal combat!” The Missa Solemnis had been intended for the installation of Beethoven’s friend, pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, as the Archbishop of Olmütz, in what is today the Czech Republic. The Archduke was the youngest son of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II and a frequent dedicatee of Beethoven’s. But by the time of the investiture ceremony in March, 1820 in Olmütz, Beethoven was still three years from completing the mass. Music by Haydn and Hummel had to be substituted. As Beethoven worked away, the structure, proportions, scope and aesthetic aims of the mass were continually expanded.

It was finally completed in 1823, but by then, the original purpose – as music for a specific occasion, had grown in scope to a personal testament of Beethoven’s beliefs on life and religion, and a universal statement of faith in humanity. He called the Missa Solemnis the greatest work that he had ever composed, inscribing on the manuscript, “Von Herzen – möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen” (From the heart – may it in turn go to the heart).

Beethoven eventually delivered a copy of the score to the Archduke Rudolph almost exactly three years after the investiture in Olmütz. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in April, 1824. The Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei were performed in Vienna in May, 1824 – the only performance, incomplete as it was, that Beethoven ever witnessed. He never heard a note of it, except in his mind’s ear, since by 1824 Beethoven was virtually stone deaf.

The Missa Solemnis contains echoes of the eight symphonies that preceded it, the opera Fidelio, and the late String Quartets and Piano Sonatas, as well as premonitions of the Symphony No. 9, “Choral”, sketched at the same time and completed soon after. To Beethoven, all music was spiritual. Unlike many masses and sacred works by other composers, the Missa Solemnis does not provide us with the vision of a distant, perfect heaven – the eventual goal of life to some. It’s more “human” than that, presenting us instead with a dream of what humanity might be here on earth….or heaven on earth. In many ways, the Missa Solemnis is a culmination of Beethoven’s life’s work and one of the most religious and truly spiritual works in history.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, teacher, broadcaster and musical tour host.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.