Missa Solemnis

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

This month we take a deep dive into Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – a work I first encountered at Tanglewood in the Summer of 1976 in a performance led by Colin Davis. I can still remember the chorus rehearsals for that; with Davis imploring the chorus in the Angus Dei to really explode the first consonant of the word “pacem” in the great choral outbursts of that word!

The Missa Solemnis is not a work that is universally adored, or even universally admired. Yet, it is a work that I feel very close to and never tire of spending time studying or rehearsing and performing. It is a work that, for me (and for many), is one of the highest peaks and greatest achievements of the Western canon. I’ve had the privilege of conducting it twice in my performing life thus far – and the difference for me in my ability to get further into the work between those two performances, separated by 9 years (during which period I also did the choral preparation for the Missa performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) was enough to show me that every encounter with the work would reveal profound new discoveries. Yes, I know you could say that about any great work – I agree! But there’s something very special about the Missa

Maybe it’s the staggering effort it takes to perform it, the extremes of range and immense technical challenges for orchestra, chorus and soloists – all of that makes it even more staggering when you get under the skin of the piece and begin considering its structural complexity and its expressive responses to the text. As with all late Beethoven, contrapuntal complexity is off the charts. There’s a lot of fugal activity; there’s even one massive fugue that is NOT required by the standard way of setting the mass text. We expect fugues at the end of the Gloria and the Credo (‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ and ‘Et vitam venturi’, respectively) – although, in the Missa we get TWO “Et vitam fugues – a slow one and then a fast one! What we don’t expect is a massive orchestral fugue in the middle of the Agnus Dei! The way this fugue interrupts the proceedings always reminds me of a similar massive orchestral fugue in the Ninth Symphony last movement, just before the joyous final tutti statement of the “Joy” melody. And the above only scratches at the surface of all the other fugal and quasi-fugal writing and the structural and dramatic scheme throughout the work. 

Indeed, let’s just take apart the awesome dramatic scheme of the Agnus Dei: it opens in a fairly typical way – with the 3-fold prayer of “Angus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (albeit with extremely anguished and emotional writing for the soloists answered by the chorus, dark and low in its range). Where Beethoven’s sense of drama takes over is that (liturgically) the third statement of the prayer is supposed to exchange the words “miserere nobis” with “Dona nobis pacem” – instead, for the first time, soloists and chorus embark on an extensive outpouring of grief with a third utterance of “miserere nobis”. The expected “Dona nobis pacem” section is finally ushered in by the chorus with a hushed a cappella statement once again of “Agnus Dei” – And, like the Kyrie and the Sanctus where Beethoven  writes in the score “with devotion” under the tempo marking; here, he writes in the score: “Prayer for inner and outer peace”.

The “Dona” section is most extraordinary – after a short transition into it, we get what starts out like an extended double fugue on the single word “pacem”. A closing section from the chorus brings a new motive in the soprano that will have import shortly. Lots of delicate upward scales in the orchestra are juxtaposed with long, floating “pacem’s” – finally interrupts with the chorus in full-voiced outbursts of “pacem!”. 

In a sequence reminiscent of Haydn’s interruption of the Angus Dei in his ‘Mass in Time of War’ with ‘battle music’, all of this is suddenly interrupted by an agitated sequence with martial sounds from trumpets and timpani. This is answered by an unusual section of quasi-recitative, with the soloists fearfully (Beethoven marks it “ängstlich”) repeating the “Agnus Dei” text. With great tension building as the martial music gets closer and the full chorus crying for mercy, the music once again transitions (as if the terrifying vision has passed) to the calm music of the “Dona”.

Following a long sequence with the soloists, the chorus embarks on yet another fugue – this time using the motive I mentioned above that would have great import. It bears a strong resemblance to the fugue subject in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” (“And He shall reign for ever and ever”) from Messiah – we should not forget that Handel was the composer Beethoven admired most! After the large fugato, much of this section feels like a recapitulation of material including the full-voiced outbursts from the chorus of “pacem!”

This time, however, the music which interrupts is a massive orchestral fugue – as I mentioned above – which is itself interrupted by the terror of the martial music. The music again subsides into the “Dona” sequence, but the outbursts and pleadings of “pacem” become ever more frequent and urgent. One final murmur of the martial mood from the timpani is quieted by the hushed “pacem, pacem” plea of the chorus and after a final statement of the “Dona” motive, the orchestra swiftly brings the movement, and the mass, to a close.

Much has been made of this ending, which many feel is abrupt. I tend to agree with those who feel that, musically, Beethoven left the question of achieving the endless plea for ‘peace’, unresolved and hanging in the air; that it’s something for us to continue to search for.

What I’ve shared above is the dramatic outline of just one movement! The other movements each have such extraordinary formal schemes and dramatic moments as well. Rather than travel through them with you, I link to a story that appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition in the Winter of 2006 (only a couple of months before my most recent performances of the work, as it turns out!) as well as a fine essay on the whole work by Michael Tilson Thomas that guides you through the whole work.



I gave you several recordings in the playlist – a commercial recoding with Levine/Vienna Phil and a stellar quartet (Studer, Norman, Domingo, Moll) and a really interesting live performance from 1967 of Szell/Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus (Robert Shaw, Director)…it’s a wild and interesting performance!!

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