BEETHOVEN'S MISSA SOLEMNIS
TO THE MUSIC
ON THE MUSICAL CONTENT





Angels Making Music. Around 1510
Matthias Grünewald
from the Isenheim Altar
(Colmar, Alsace, France, Unterlinden Museum)

 
VINCENT D'INDYS LOOK AT THE CONTENT OF THE MISSA SOLEMNIS

For a look at the musical content of the Missa solemnis from a liturgical point of view, the description by the French musicologist VINCENT D'INDY  (SourceThe Beethoven Companion. Edited by Thomas K. Scherman and Louis Biancolli.  Garden City, New York: 1972.  Doubleday & Company, Inc.) is an excellent choice.  In it, the author mainly attempts to answer the question as to the Catholic essence of the work.  Let us quote his introductory remarks as well as his relevant remarks to all movements of the Mass:

"Should the Missa Solemnis be regarded as liturgical music?  Let us answer boldly, No!  This admirable art would surely not be in place in church.  Quite out of proportion to the ceremonies of the divine office, the Mass requires the employment of a considerable orchestra, hardly suited for the music appropriate to a place of worship.

Not liturgical music;--but sacred music of the loftiest rank, and, furthermore, essentially Catholic music.  We are very far from regarding with suspicion the good faith of those among Beethoven's historiographers who have sought to attach to this unique monument of religious art a purely philosophical significance--to set this Mass  down as a work outside of Christian belief, as a manifestation of free thought . . .; but not to recognize the very spirit of Catholicism in the tenderness wherewith the divine personages are enveloped, in the emotion accompanying the announcement of the mysteries, is itself proof of blindness--or ignorance"  (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion: 951-952).


TO THE KYRIE

"From the beginning of the Kyrie one receives an impression of grandeur which finds an equal only in that given by the similar entry in Bach's great B-minor Mass.  It is the whole human race that implores divine clemency.  The tonality is speedily inflected to the relative minor; a sort of distressful march shows us the Son of God come down to earth; but the word Christe, grounded on the same music as Kyrie, symbolizes the identity of the two Persons in one God; whereas the third Kyrie, representing the Holy Ghost, the third Person participating in the same divinity as the two others, is based upon the third harmonic function, the subdominant, as a bond of union for the three representations of the single God" (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion: 952).

 


TO THE GLORIA

"The Gloria enters with impressive brilliancy in a trumpet-fanfare confided to the contraltos of the chorus.  It is important to bring out this typical motive with due effect amid the din of the orchestra; the conductor should see to this.  After the shout of glory, all suddenly grows calm on the words pax hominibus, etc.; and one can already trace the sketch, in its essential features, of the grand theme of Peace with which the work ends.  We cannot dwell on each phrase of the Gloria; but we shall mention, in passing, in the Gratias agimus tibi, the emergence of a melodic design later to be cherished by Richard Wagner, principally in the Meistersinger and the Walküre.  The trumpet-signal which serves as a pivot for the whole piece is almost constantly in evidence, every time, at least, that the words imply an appeal to force or a symbol of power.  We may regret that the final fugue on in gloria Dei Patris is not more unlike its congeners, and develops with no more of interest than the fugues written by the Kappelmeister of the period on the same words.  It is the weak point of the word" (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion: 952-953).


TO THE CREDO

"With the Credo, we re-enter the cathedral, not to leave it again.  And what is this Credo, even plastically considered, but a cathedral; this sublime monument of Catholic faith, so strikingly divided into three naves, the central nave ending with the sacrificial altar "ET homo factus est"?  The architectural arrangement is a marvel of construction, a miracle of harmonious, nay, mystical equilibrium.  Judge for yourselves.

The Credo is planned in three grand divisions, following the trinitarian system customary in a great number of liturgical works.

The first division, an exposition of faith in one God, in itself comprises two affirmations: "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty," and "in one Lord Jesus Christ."  Both are established in the principal key of B-flat major, with a transition to the subdominant; after which the two Persons are reunited, on consubstantialem Patri, in the tonic.

The second division presents the evangelical drama of Jesus descended to earth.  It consists of three acts:  The Incarnation, going over to the words Et homo factus est; the scene of the Passion ("Crucifixus"), beginning in D major and progressing in depression on the words of the burial; and the Ressurection, which of a sudden soars upward to the luminous dominant, F major.

The third division is consecrated to the Holy Ghost.  Like the first, it contains two subdivisions:  The affirmation of belief with regard to the Holy Ghost and the dogmas of the Church; and the celebration of the mystery of eternal life.  All this last part does not leave the tonality of the piece.

And there may be found critics so superficial as to assert that the theological sense of the sacred text was a matter of indifference to Beethoven!

We cannot enter into a detailed analysis, for everything would have to be quoted.  Let us study only the central portion--the drama.  Succeeding the Incarnatus, written in the first Gregorian mode, there begins the awful ascent of Calvary.  We can follow the Savior's faltering steps, so rudely underscored by the orchestra.  And now there arises, under the bows of the first violins, the moan of the most moving plaint, the sub-plaint yet more intense than the sorrowful melody in Opus 110, in that here it expresses, not human suffering, but the anguish of a God made man.  The final fugue is altogether of admirable luminosity.  It requires a very slow movement; for it should be remembered that when Beethoven writes in 3/2 time, or even in 6/4 (as, for instance, in the overture to Egmont, the twentieth variation in Opus 120, the religious theme in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony, etc.), he attributes to this notation a signification of majestic slowness; no exception to this rule can be found in his works.  This fugue--as regular, with its stretti, its contrary motion and diminutions, as the finest fugues of Bach--is a model of masterful poesy.  It might be called a representation of the joys of heaven, as they were imagined by Lippi or Giovanni da Fiesole.  It is, in fact, like fresco from the golden age translated into music; the fancy depicts a mystic dance, a roundel of the blessed pressing with naked feet the flowerets of the celestial meadows.  It sounds afar off, this majestic round, scarce to be heard.  It approaches, it is close at hand, we are entwined in its hallowed circles--it departs, wellnigh vanishes, but only to return as with an augmented host, yet more enthusiastic, to bear us away in its whirl and to subside, in adoration, before the throne of the Almighty!" (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion:  953-954).


TO THE SANCTUS

"In the Sanctus, Beethoven, respecting the Catholic liturgy and knowing that, during the mystery of the consecration, no voice should make itself heard, Beethoven, by the might of his genius, has raised silence into sublimity. This Praeludium, which allows the celebrant time to consecrate the elements, is to our mind an inspiration infinitely loftier in conception than the charming concerto for violin and voice which follows.  This Praeludium is admirable in every aspect!  What grandeur of religious art!--and obtained by means so simple as to be astonishing, did not enthusiasm in this case overwhelm astonishment" (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion: 954).


TO THE AGNUS DEI

" . . . The whole long entrance-section, wherein mankind implores the pity of the divine Lamb, is of a beauty still unequaled in musical history.  Careful examination will show how greatly this supplication in Latin, that is to say, endowed with a peculiarly Catholic expression, differs from the Greek prayer of the Kyrie;--a prayer more carefully ordered, it is true, after the manner of antique art, but less affecting and less urgent.  And that the accents of this appeal rise so brokenly toward the throne of the Lamb, the victim of Hate, is because it beseeches Him for peace, "peace within and without," wrote Beethoven.  No more hateful thoughts, no more soul-conflicts or profound dejection; the theme of Peace has emerged, calm and luminous, out of the irresolute key of B minor, and has at last given us back the tonality of D major, that of Faith and love, that wherein the Love of all Mankind is enwreathed in the Ninth Symphony.  This theme takes on a pastoral character which gives the impression of a walk in the fields; for Pace is not in the city--it is by the brooks of the valley, among the trees of the forest, that the restless town dweller must seek her; for Peace is not of the world, therefore it is beyond the world that the artist's heart goes forth on her quest: Sursum corda!

A simple, quite regular fugue-exposition prepared the blossoming of the peaceful Flower, this affirmative theme which, descending straight from heaven, bears witness that the soul has finally won the enjoyment of that so longed-for peace.  This four-measure theme appears only four times in the Agnus, but is of such penetrating charm that the spirit of the hearer is left, as it were, impregnated with its perfume, and still feels its spell long after the tones have died away.

Suddenly--in homage to the traditional in tempore belli of Haydn's Masses--distant drums and trumpets twice announce the army of Hate.  And the soul is anew seized with dread; again it implores; it begs for the promised peace as yet but transiently felt:  "We must pray, pray, pray."  But it cannot gain peace without conquering itself.  This is the musical apology of Christian renunciation.  The theme of peace is transformed, a conflict in the human heart is introduced in the course of the extraordinary orchestral presto in which the peace-motive turns upon itself in a self-annihilating struggle brought to a close by a victorious fanfare.  "Above all, the power of the peace within--Victory!"  And here we find the one point whence are derived all the arguments going to show that the Missa Solemnis is an exclusively human work, bare of religious spirit--a layman's Mss.  "What!" we are told, "A military signal, and twice repeated, at that!  It is an opera; it has nothing to do with religion."  And without further ceremony the label irreligious is plastered on the Mass!  This reasoning is as just as that which would adduce the bird songs in the Pastoral Symphony to prove a lack of internal feeling for nature in that symphony--"Empfindung," as Beethoven says--and make it a purely descriptive work.  Ancient sophism always consisted in taking the part for the whole.  And wherein--to speak plainly--does this episode of an appeal to arms, giving way, after a short though bitter struggle to an ardent prayer, conflict with the religious spirit of the Mass?  On the contrary, this fight against the spirit of Hate within us, so destructive of peace, a fight already depicted in the Ninth Symphony in almost the same musical forms, realizes one of the most familiar traditional conditions of Christian life.  And Beethoven, writing to Count Dietrichstein, the Intendant of the imperial music, "It is not necessary to follow habitual usage when the purpose is sincere adoration of God," does he not himself declare that, if the Mass in D is not liturgical, it was at least dictated by a religious spirit beyond question?  The episode in whose behalf we have just made this digression is therefore simply and solely a vital commentary on the words; the distressful "Have mercy upon us!~--upon us, whom the demons of Hate assail from every side," gives way to the confident appeal, "Give peace unto our souls!"

And, in truth, it is Peace that anew intervenes.  Tender, radiant Peace waxes like a miraculous plant, and while faraway drums are beating the retreat of the spirits of Evil, there spreads for the last time from the height of its upraised stem the brilliant bloom of the four incomparable measures, as if to exhale heavenward the perfume of the grateful soul's act of faith.  Is there anything more beautiful in the realm of music?--And, for the expression of peace won by God's aid, can one imagine a more sublime offering from a human being to his divine Creator" (D'Indy in The Beethoven Companion:  954-956).

 

For a brief biography of D'Indy, we can offer you the following link:

D'Indy's Brief Biography at the Classical Music Archives

 

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