BEETHOVEN'S MISSA SOLEMNIS
MAngels Making Music. Around 1510
from the Isenheim Altar
(Colmar, Alsace, France, Unterlinden Museum)
While our look at the musical content of the Missa solemnis was based on D'Indy's discussion of the liturgical aspects in the musical content of this work, our overview of contemporary music criticism will feature 'our' biographers and musicologists, Maynard Solomon, William Kinderman, Barry Cooper and Lewis Lockwood (in chronological sequence of the publication of their works we quote from), and we hope that they can offer you different approaches to music criticism as well as several interesting observations.
In his book review, "Lewis Lockwood's Beethoven: The Music and the Life", in the 2003 summer edition of the Beethoven Journal (p. 26-29) writes that Maynard Solomon's discussions of Beethoven's music are "full of wisdom" (p. 26), that the latter, however, is adhering to a strict practice of not discussing music "in technical terms" (p. 26), for which reason one would also not find note samples in Solomon's books.
Let us, therefore, in Solomon's comments on the Missa solemnis, enjoy his wisdom and his experience as Beethoven biographer:
"In his middle period, the model for Beethoven's sonata cycle was drama-comedy, tragedy, and the combined forms of these which touch upon mythic and collective levels of experience. This model retained its resiliency and power in the last "public" works: the Missa solemnis, the Ninth Symphony" (Solomon: 302).
"The Mass became Beethoven's absorbing passion for four years, replacing Fidelio as the great "problem work" of his career. Ineed, there is a sense in which the Missa solemnis came to be regarded by Beethoven as a talismanic composition, whose value to him was so great that--as we saw earlier--embarked on a unique series of financial negotiations and manipulations in respect of its publication which cost him several friendships and gave him an unpleasant reputation for sharp business practice.
None of this, however, speaks to the religious meaning of the work for Beethoven, for it might well have been the purely musical substance of the Mass which led him to prize it so highly. Beethoven's creativity required repeated musical challenge: in his earlier Vienna years he had methodically set about demonstrating his command of the main genres of the classical tradition. In the late period, a similar determination is once more evident: in the encyclopedic essays in fugue and in variation technique of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Diabelli Variations, and in the Missa solemnis, which establishes Beethoven's mastery of the highest form of liturgical music.
Although we may be certain that Beethoven poured his deepest religious feelings into the Missa solemnis, we may equally be sure that it was not obeisance to Catholicism that prompted the work. As has often been noted, the piece has never been fully at home in either concert hall or church. On several occasions Beethoven suggested that it could be performed as "a grand oratorio" (adding, parenthetically, "for the benefit of the poor"), and he was not disturbed to learn that in its first performance, in St. Petersburg, it was indeed presented as an oratorio. He himself did not hesitate to retitle the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei of the Mass "Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices," in order to obtain permission from the censor for their performance at his concert of May 7, 1824. But the learest evidence of Beethoven's nonsectarian attitude toward his Mass is his offer to provide Simrock with a German-language version to facilitate performances in Protestant communities. . . .
This is not to diminish the religious significance of, or religious intention behind, the Mass. "My chief aim," he wrote to Andreas Streicher, "was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners." And to Archduke Rudolph: "There is nothing higher than to approach the Godhead more nearly than other mortals and by means of that contact to spread the rays of the Godhead through the human race."
Beethoven had written one Mass in the Viennese style, with an admixture of grand-manner symphonism. It seems clear that he now felt the Classic tradition to be insufficient for the composition of a major work in this form, or for the expression of feelings of highly sublimated spirituality. Apparently he had felt this lack as early as 1809, when he observed that "in the old church modes the devotion is divine. . . and God permit me to express it someday." Now he systematically and painstakingly set about mastering the musical vocabularies of religious music of earlier periods. Just prior to the commencement of the Mass he wrote in his Tagebuch: "In order to write true church music . . . look through all the monastic church chorales and also the strophes in the most correct translations and perfect prosody in all Christian-Catholic psalms and hymns generally." He and his friends combed the libraries of Lobkowitz and Archduke Rudolph in search of old music and teatises on liturgical procedures, and Beethoven immersed himself in the music of Palestrina and his Renaissance contemporaries and in the music of Handel, Bach, and C.P.E. Bach. ("Do not forget [C.P.E.] Bach's Litanies," he wrote in the Tagebuch.) It is not surprising, then, that the resulting work is an amalgam of archaic and modern styles, more deeply rooted in older traditions than any other work of Beethoven's but retaining the grandeur and dynamic thrust of a symphonism growing out of the sonata style. In a brilliant essay which removes the Missa solenis from the historical vacuum in which it is ordinarily studied, Warren Kirkendale writes: "Today we see that he not only retained traditional thought to an unexpected degree, but even uncovered much older, buried traditions, and formed musical 'ideas' in the plain and concrete sense of the century in which he was born--naturally with an incomparably freer, personal vocabulary." And he demonstrates that Beethoven's Mass achieves its immense power partly through the complex use of conventional images and traditional patterns of musical rhetoric whose associational meanings had been built up through centuries of usage and development.
The productive imagination must be given its due as well, however, and though there are many 'new roads to old ideas" in the Missa solemnis, its historic importance lies largely in the way in which it reshaped rather than reproduced the traditions of liturgical music. It did this by very much the same method which created the great religious music of Beethoven's predecessors, from Dufay and Josquin to Handel and Bach: viz, a refusal to accept the received forms and languages as eternal models, and an infussion of "secular" elements derived from nonliturgical musical styles which expanded the expressive possibilities of the form, giving the matrix of later musical grammar. Beethoven knew that he was not writing his Missa Solemnis in the traditional church style; he wrote to Zelter that he regarded the ca capella style as "the only true church style," but he chose to avoid this model, perhaps because he did not wish the work to serve its normal pacifying function as an idealization of the eternality and unchangeability of belief. In bypassing the Palestrina style (though utilizing it to achieve a specific mystical quality in the Et incarnatus est), Beethoven was rejecting its beatification of hierarchical and, by implication, feudal forms. Beethoven introduced a restless, questioning element into the received forms of the Mass. Lang writes: "To the Christian whose supreme law is obedience, the Be4ethovenian attitude seems repellent, for submission is preceded in him by a struggle with doubts; faith is gained through a Faustian trial."
Beethoven's consciously employed archaisms and reminiscences--the use of Dorian and Mixolydian modes, the Gregorian "fossils," the quotations from Handel's Messiah in the Gloria and Agnus Dei--and his employment of procedures and musical imagery derived from older liturgical styles are, in context, modernistic devices which also serve to stretch the expressiveness of his music beyond the boundaries set by the style of high-Classic and late-Classic liturgical music. These devices, as well as the theatrical use of 'military" and "pastoral" motifs in the Dona nobis pacem, are also shortcuts in the communication process, rapidly assimilable musical ideographs to ease the process of understanding the grand design of the Mass, which Beethoven called "the greatest work which I have composed so far."
Bekker called the Missa solemnis a "Divine Heroic Symphony," and he wrote: "In the Eroica the hero wins culture for humanity as the fruit of his life and death; but here the prize is life everlasting," Contrary to Beethoven's usual practice, however, the Missa Solemnis does not strive for a heroic, transcendent, or even necessarily affirmative conclusion. As Ernest Newman observed: "The conclusion of it all is enigmatic. . . . Does Beethoven really believe that the prayer will be answered, or does he leave it all as a kind of question mark projected upon the remote, indifferent sky?" One need not go quite this far--and William Mann has pointed out that one does not ordinarily end a prayer with heroic peroration, but with ah "Amen." Neverthless, one wonders whether Beethoven indeed felt that he, or mankind, would win the prize of life everlasting. There was in him a deep yearning for immortality. In 1803 he had written to the painter Alexander Macco: "Continue to paint--and I shall continue to write down notes; and thus we shall live--for ever?--yes, perhaps, for ever." In the Tagebuch he asked: "What more can be given to man than fame and praise and immortality?" In April 1823, his friend Karl Peters whote in the Conversation Book: "Granted that you don't believe in it you will be glorified, because your music [is] religion." Clearly Beethoven had expressed his doubts to Peters, who sought to reassure him: "You will arise with me from the dead--because you must. Religion remains constant, only Man is changeable." And so Beethoven's ongoing conflict between faith and doubt is revealed in the Missa Solemnis. As Riezler knew, in the Dona nobis pacem, with its sounds of strife and warfare and its anguished cries for peace, both inner and outer, Beethoven had "dared to allow the confusion of the world outside to invade the sacred domain of church music." In this sense, the Missa Solemnis forecasts the theological questions and doubts--along with the warfare between science and religion--that were to dominate the intellectual battleground of the nineteenth century" (Solomon: 306-309).
With Kinderman's comments, we begin our three "musicological" comments, each one of which features a different point of departure. In his comment, Kinderman tries to trace the musical import of Beethoven's transformation of his fascination with the Kantian concept of the "moral law within us" and the "starry heavens above us" in this work:
"" . . . The moral law within us, and the starry heavens above us'. Beethoven's citation, with its enthusiastic attribution, has been often re-cited and commented on. the conversation-book entry takes on new significance, however, when considered in relation to the genesis of the composition that was occupying--or, rather, consuming--him at the time: the Missa solemnis. The issues raised are crucial to the structure and presession of the Mass, especially in its later movements, the Credo, Bendedictus, and Agnus Dei. The sympolic ideas that surface here are not confined to the Mass, moeover, but re-emerge in other major compositions that he wrote between 1823 and 1825. These matters are so central to our investigation as to require more detailed scritiny than we have given to much of Beethoven's earlier music. The works he wrote from 1820 to 1826 are not large in number but they pose formidable aesthetic challenges. A richer context for discussion of the Missa solemnis can be gained if we consider not only the existing score, which w3as virtually complete by 182, but also the compositional genesis of this great work.
The sketchbooks show that when Beethoven copied down this quotation from Kant he had already worked intensely on the Mass for most of a year but was far from finished. At this point in the compositional process he had not yet devised one of the most impressive symbolic and structural musical elements of the Mass: the use of specific related sonorities to serve as a focal point of the musical setting in the Credo and Benedictus. Subsequently, after completing the Mass, he absorbed and implanted this network of referential sonorities into his next great choral orchestral composition, the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony, in the treatment of a text strikingly similar to the dictum from Kant cited above.
A distinctive harmonic feature of the finished Credo is its use of the subdominant E-flat triad in place of the tonic B-flat as the first vertical sonority of the movement. An upward leap of an octave reaches to this high, sustained E-flat chord, which resolves to the dominant of B-flat in the second bar. The position of the E-flat chord, with the third, G, uppermost, is noteworthy, as is its orchestration, employing the oboes and flutes in the high register. Particularly arresting is the rhythm of the passage: the chord is prolonged for six beats, resolving to the F major triad only in the middle of the second bar. As a result, the introduction acts as a metrical unit of two bars anticipating in rhythmic augmentation the dotted rhythm of the 'Credo' motif heard in bar 3. This rhythmic relationship, as well as the distinctive spacing of the initial chord and its unusual harmonic basis on the subdominant, all serve to bring the introductory gesture strongly into relief.
Beethoven's decision to place this introduction at the beginning of the Credo raises issues that concern the musical organization of the entire movement. For a closer examination of the Credo reveals that the initial E-flat chord, in its original register and spacing, is treated not only as a ritornello but as an important thematic element throughout the movement. It assumes special prominence at the climax of the 'Et vitam venturi' fugue and in the closing 'amen' section. Sketches from the spring and early summer of 1820 record Beethoven's first use of this high, protracted E-flat sonority as part of the concluding plagal cadence to 'amen', as well as his employment of a closely related progression at the earlier cadence to 'amen' that immediately precedes the fugue. In sketches for the opening section of the Credo iin the same sources the high sustained E-flat chord is conspicuously absent, however. The evidence from the sketchbook implies that in this instance Beethoven worked backwards, by making this crucial sonority associated with the end of the movement serve also as an introduction and ritornello in the first half of the Credo. The full musical significance of the opening gesture of the Credo can be assessed, then, only in the context of the whole movement.
We are dealing here with an outstanding example of Beethoven's characteristic device of anticipation--the foreshadowing, early in the work, of important musical events to come. Another familiar example is the opening section of the finale of the Ninth Symphony, where the Schreckensfanfare, the orchestral recitative passages, and the citation and rejection of the earlier movements are fully intelligible only in light of the following choral sections of the movement. In the Credo, by contrast, the anticipation of events to come is concentrated in the orchestral ritornello beginning with the opening E-flat chord. Analysis of the broader role of this E-flat sonority brings us into the midst of the musical architecture that embraces the entire movement, a formal symphonic organization quite unusual in settings of the Credo, with its lengthy doctrinal text.
The form of the Credo falls into four main parts: the opening Allegro ma non troppo up to 'descendit de coelis', in B-flat; the section in slow tempo from the Incarnatus up to the Resurrexit, with a basic tonality of D; the Allegro molto beginning at 'et ascendit in coelum' and leading into the recapitulation of the Credo in F major; and finally the fugue and coda on 'et vitam venturi saeculi, amen', in B-flat. Within this framework the second section in slow tempo makes the strongest possible contrast to the rest of the movement, a contrst made even more startling by the use of modality--the Dorian mode in the Incarnatus and the Mixolydian (briefly) in the Resurrexit, which is heard as unaccompanied vocal polyphony. Overlapping cadences and unity of key-centre link the internal episodes: the D Dorian of the Incarnatus is followed by D major at 'homo factus est' and D minor in the Crucifixus. Set apart by its archaic modality, by the entry of the vocal soloists, by the secondary key-centre of D, and by the absence of thematic material associated with the rest of the movement, this section represents and interpolation within the larger framework of the whole Credo.
Surprisingly, the symbolic aspect of this musical setting has been overlooked by critics, who have confined their attention to the conventional tone painting in the setting of the words 'descendit' and 'ascendit'. The more profound symbolism is expressed through the utter contrast--in texture, thematic material, register, and key--between all the music from the Incarnatus to the Resurrexit on the one hand, and the ret of the Credo on the other. The large interpolation in the musical form assumes a rhetorical or symbolic function, for it reflects musically the descent of Christ from heaven to earth, with his subsequent ascent after the crucifixion and the burial being embodied in the return and continuation of music heard earlier in the movement. This feature is of special interest in view of Beethoven's enthusiasm for the dictum from Kant cited above, since it involves the association of a specific high sonority with heaven or the heavens which imparts a symbolic association to the larger musical context.
In order to establish an audible musical relationship between descent and ascent, Beethoven employs a device prominent in other works from his later years--a grandiose interrupted cadence. The musical setting of the words 'descendit de coelis' is a powerful seven-bar phrase, closing with an emphatic cadence in B-flat in the highest register on the word 'coelis', The orchestra repeats the phrase, reaching the dominant of B-flat in the last bar before the Adagio. This time, however, the highest pitch, A, of the F major triad does not resolve upwards to B-flat; instead the cadence is but off and the F major sonority altered to become the dominant of D. Here the full orchestral forces drop out, with a precipitous plunge in register for the Incarnatus, which is scored at first only for low strings. The descent from heaven is thereby reflected in a sudden transformation of the musical texture.
Then, throughout the ensuing slow movement, higher pitch registers are used sparingly; there they do appear in the solo flute in the Incarnatus it is with special symbolic intent, to evoke the hovering of the dove. The orchestration is also lighter here than in the rest of the movement, due in part to the absence of brass and timpani. Only at 'et ascendit in coelum' do the full orchestral forces return with the arrival at the F major chord that serves as the goal of the long series of rising scales. This sonority is emphasized dynamically and sustained for four bars, but its importance extends well beyond the immediate musical context. To begin with, it is the same sonority, in an identical register and very similar orchestration, that serves as the point of transition at the interrupted cadence in the 'descendit' passage. The use of a matching sonority is symbolically fitting, for this high F major chord with A at the top was there used for the word 'coelis', and on its return here, at the end of the rising scales, it is used for the same word, 'coelum'.
The ascent into heaven coincides with the resumption of the musical texture from the opening Allegro section of the Credo, with the F major chord serving as a point of reference back to the suspended, unresolved sonority at the end of 'descendit de coelis'. But at this point the sonority assumes yet another function: it forms the beginning of an extended thematic unit, which is later repeated sequentially--with a parallel sonority--as the music for 'cujus regni nor erit finis', the passage leading up to the recapitulation (cf. bars 202-21 and 240-63). This passage is decidedly developmental in character, owing to its modulations and persistent syncopations, a hallmark of Beethoven's alter development procedure. The F major sonority used for the word 'heaven' is thus a cornerstone in the formal architecture of the Credo, linking its first and third sections and initiating the development, while at the same time creating a symbolic role for the music that transcends and details of tone painting.
In view of the formal importance of this F major chord, it is interesting to note that in Beethoven's early drafts for the Credo the orchestral repetition of the phrase 'et descendit de coelis' and the interrupted cadence are absent; other, unused attempts at a transition appear. It was later in the compositional process that Beethoven strengthened the link between the first and third sections of the Credo--a link centred on a single, crucial sonority rooted in the broad formal structure of the music which at the same time served the symbolic function of relating the music more closely to the Mass text.
Much the same procedure seems to have been at work in Beethoven's decision, again late in the process of composition, to employ the E-flat sonority as a unifying element for the entire movement. We are now in a position to examine the formal and symbolic implications of this chord, which occurs for the first time in the introductory orchestral gesture at the very beginning of the Credo and recurs subsequently no fewer than 11 times.
As we have said, this opening orchestral gesture is treated as a ritornello, preceding the 'Credo' motif. As such, it appears three times in the movement, reflecting the threefold affirmation of belief in the Trinity (as is well known, Beethoven emphasized this by adding two extra statements of 'Credo' to the Mass text, before the words 'in unum Dominum Jesum Christum' and 'in Spiritum Sanctum'). At the beginning of the movement the orchestral ritornello and imitative statements of the 'Credo' motif occupy ten bars, to the text 'Credo in unum Deum'. On its second appearance (bar 34) the initial E-flat chord is systained for ony two beats instead of six, so that the entire passage occupies nine bars, to the text 'Credo in unum Dominum Jesum Christum'.
The next appearance of the E-flat chord occurs not as part of the ritornello but in the powerful seven-bar repeated phrase to 'descendit de coelis' discussed above. It is this sonority, in fact, that resolves to the tonic of B-flat three bars before the interrupted cadence. The E-flat chord is thus directly linked here with the music of descent/ascent, with its unmistakably symbolic implications.
On their third appearance, later in the movement, the ritornello and statements of the 'Credo' motif assume the role of a recapitulation and are expanded to about 30 bars. Here the return and development of the 'Credo' motif carries the music through the most doctrinal parts of the Mass text, where the words are rattled off syllabically, rendered inconspicuous by the many imitative entries of the 'Credo' motif. The selective emphasis given the Mass text is indeed striking; beginning with the word 'Credo in Spiritum Sanctum', the last third of the text is covered in only 42 bars of music, whereas the five closing words, 'et vitam venturi saeculi, amen' 'and the life to come, world without end, amen'), occupy 166 bars, comprising the fugue and the coda.
Since the recapitulation has been in the dominant, F major, this third appearance of the orchestral ritornello is not at the original pitch level. The motif from the ritornello returns, however, as part of the emphatic cadence on the word 'amen' that closes the section (bars 300-2), just before the 'Et vitam venturi' fugue, and here it relates clearly to the E-flat chord at the beginning of the movement. The rhythmic context is the same, with the chord sustained for six beats, as previously; once again, G is uppermost, and the cord appears in the same high register in similar orchestration. The correspondence in sonority is thus unmistakable, in spite of the new harmonization of the high G within the dominant seventh of F. Subsequently, yet another harmonization of this motif is heard as cadence to the first part of the fugue.
Only at the climax of the fugue and in the coda, however, is the full significance of the E-flat chord revealed. It is important at this point to consider the thematic material of the Credo, especially in the latter parts of the movement. For in the fugue and coda it becomes evident that the E-flat chord is not merely a recurring harmony heard from the beginning but a sonority closely related to the thematic material on which much of the music is based.
Like the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Credo of the Mass relies heavily on the interval of a descending third. This is nowhere more evident than in the fugue subject, which is based on a chain of seven descending thirds (the fourth inverted to from a rising sixth) outlining the tonic, subdominant, and dominant triads (see Feb. 2). The 'Credo' motif is related to this configuration of thirds. Most striking, however, is the parallel between the series of descending thirds passing through the subdominant on the one hand, and emphasis on an analogous harmonic progression through the subdominant on the other, which allows Beethoven to combine the harmonic progression from the orchestral ritornello with the motivic descending thirds of the fugue. This synthesis occurs as early as the crucial 'et descendit de coelis' passage and later becomes the basis for the climax of the fugue.
The fugue has an unusual two-part structure, with the second part undergoing a process of rhythmic intensification created from diminution of the original subject, a procedure Beethoven used again, with some modification, in the fugue of the Diabelli Variations. The climax occurs in the second part, there the longer note values of the original subject are superimposed on the complex texture of other voices treating a diminution of the subject, all over a sustained dominant pedal. Here the series of descending thirds is extended and rearranged as a rising sequence, leading to a climactic subdominant sonority, repeated four times, to the words 'saeculi amen'. This sonority, which may be regarded as the climax of the entire movement, is identical with the striking E-flat of the orchestral introduction (cf. Ex. 79). The rhythmic context is also similar, since the chord is protracted for a bar and a half on each of its four appearances. In the fugue, however, it is glorified by the presence of motivic elements from the fugue subject, both in the original note values and in diminution.
Just as this sonority serves as the goal and climax of the fugal development, its arrival also signals the dissolution of the fugue. The motif formed from the E-flat chord and its harmonic resolution, treated sequentially, serves as transition to the coda, marked Grave, which immediately brings a return of the same E-flat chord, It is now approached in the lower instruments by the upward leap of an octave derived from the opening orchestral ritornello. This motivic reminiscence of the beginning of the Credo is most prominent in the organ part, where it may have been added late in the compositional process, since it is absent from the autograph score.
As in the analogous passage towards the end of the finale of the Ninth Symphony, there follows an extended cadenza for the soloists, who sing a series of rising scale to the word 'amen'. The scales pass into the lowest register in the flute. An emphatic, fourfold repetition of the tonic triad of B-flat to the choral 'amen' then generates a second, more elaborate series of rising and descending scales. The descending scale pattern passes through two fifths, from F to B-flat, which is twice repeated, and from B-flat to E-flat, repeated once. This descending scale thus corresponds to the structure of the fugue subject; the descending thirds are here filled in with stepwise movement. Just as this descending scale reaches the subdominant E-flat in the bass, the ascending scales in the winds come to rest on the high E-flat chord that has played such an important role throughout the Credo. As the soprano and alto enter on G and E-flat, four bars before the end, the ascending scales are heard again, in the orchestra, in rhythmic diminution, quietly rushing upwards to the resolution of the plagal cadence on 'amen' in the highest register. With this high B-flat major chord, and a final reminiscence of the head of the fugue subject in the lower strings and timpani, the movement ends.
We may now schematize the formal organization of the Credo, showing the appearances of the E-flat sonority as well as the F major chord associated with 'coelis'.
Let us now consider the symbolism inherent in the musical architecture of Beethoven's Credo. Tovey once described the extreme contrasts of the Mass as 'Beethoven enraptured at the thought of the Divine Glory, but immediately prostrated by the sudden consciousness of the nothingness of man'. This dichotomy applies particularly to the first Allegro section of the Credo, which motivates abrupt contrasts that have posed difficulties for many listeners and critics. Subsequently, through the interpolation of the composite slow movement within a larger formal context, Beethoven achieves the musical equivalent of the disjunction between heaven and earth. A symmetry of form is created through the subsumption of the most doctrinal parts o f the text into the recapitulation and through the development of the 'Credo' motif. After the dominant recapitulation, the movement is crowned by the great fugue in B-flat, the climax of which had been foreshadowed by the very first chord of the Credo. In the coda, finally, this crucial sonority becomes the penultimate chord of the plagal cadence, arising out of the same thematic material that had generated the fugue. Those parts of the music associated with the godhead and eternal life--the references to the Trinity, the descent from and ascent into heaven, and the setting of the closing words 'et vitam venturi saeculi, amen'--present a remarkably coherent formal structure spanning the entire movement.
One moment in the creation of this formal structure has been documented by reference to the sketchbooks--Beethoven's decision to employ, as an opening orchestral ritornello, the same high E-flat sonority that was later to serve as the climax and plagal close of the movement. What is noteworthy is the manner in which Beethoven isolates and develops this particular sonority, treating it as a unifying element throughout the movement. Its role in the Mass also has symbolic implications, which are clarified by the close musical affinity between the Credo and another of the Mass movements, the Benedictus. The high chord that opens the Benedictus appears like a ray of light, breaking the darkness of the long descending progression of the Praeludium. Mellers has drawn attention to the similarity between the penultimate E-flat chord of the Credo and this initial sonority of the Benedictus--a high G major chord in first inversion. The parallel is convincing, and is supported by features of the music not cited by Mellers, particularly the presence of the thematic material based on descending thirds. The beginning of the celebrated dolce cantabile theme in the solo violin, with its descending third and rising sixth, the thirds filled in by stepwise movement, is almost identical in structure to the fugue subject of the Credo. The G major chord, on the other hand, is treated analogously with the E-flat chord of the Credo as a referential sonority--it begins and closes the movement and appears repeatedly, always with the solo violin on high G. The highest pitch of the E-flat chord from the Credo is retained in the Benedictus to become tonic in the new sonority, signalling the arrival of the divine messenger. From this sonority the violin solo emerges; thus the network of referential sonorities becomes closely identified with this very unusual feature of the orchestration in the Mass--the assignment of the single most prominent solo part not to one of the vocalists but rather to the violin. The violin solo of the Benedictus effectively symbolizes the absolute, ideal quality of the divine presence, using the high G major chord as a point of departure and return.
In his sketches for this passage Beethoven contemplated an earlier entry of the solo violin in a lower register, followed by a gradual ascent in pitch. By eliminating this transition he highlighted the initial chord of the Benedictus by means of an astonishing disjunction in pitch. In a sense, this sudden upward shift in register is analogous to the sudden downward shift at the Incarnatus in the Credo, where Beethoven also contemplated, and rejected, a transition in sonority. At the end of the Credo, on the other hand, Beethoven emphasizes the high E-flat chord in a different manner from the Benedictus, making it the goal of the long series of ascending scales beginning in the lowest register. In each case these high sonorities evoke celestial regions that transcend earthly existence; their symbolic importance is unmistakable.
As we have seen, Beethoven's interest in the 'starry heavens above' is already reflected in a piece like the slow movement of the String Quartet in E minor op. 59 no. 2, from 1806. Another such example, from the period when the Missa solemnis was being composed, is his song Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel WoO 150, whose autograph score is dated 4 March 1820; here a high E major sonority in the piano begins and ends the piece, acting as a symbolic framing gesture. In the Missa solemnis the significant image-content is merged with the thematic and formal structure to shape an unconsummated symbol; there is no contradiction here between structure and expression, but rather an interdependence of the syntactic and semantic aspects of artistic meaning. The Agnus Dei of the Mass displays symbolism of a much less affirmative nature. Beethovens sets the Agnus Dei in the 'black' tonality of B minor, and underscores his setting of the 'miserere nobis' with poignant chromaticism, syncopation, and dark orchestral textures. The sift to the 6/8 D major Allegretto vivace for the 'Dona nobis pacem' brings a drastic contrast, as a prayer for peace is juxtaposed with the awareness of worldly strife. The series of themes employed on the 'Dona' culminates in a moving phrase sung by the voices a capella. In its contour and rhythm this intimate melody is reminiscent of his setting of 'Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder' ('Take these songs to your heart, then') in the last song of An die ferne Geliebte.
Beethoven exposes this fragile prayer to threats, initially in the form of the music of war embodied in the Allegro assai. The approach of the military procession in B-flat motivates the return of the text 'Agnus Dei, miserere nobis' which is sung 'fearfully' (ängstlich) in recitative. This passage underscores the unfulfilled nature of our hopes for peace. Even after the D major music of the 'Dona nobis pacem' is restored, the threats to peace never entirely recede from the horizon of the work. The agitated, hurly-burly presto orchestral episode at the heart of the movement may represent a threat to 'inner pace'; this passage eventually leads into a powerful resumption of the bellicose trumpet-and-drum fanfares. . . .
While sketching the Agnus Dei Beethoven contemplated a symphonically conceived coda, only to reject that option at an advanced stage in composition. His decision was surely bound up with the open conclusion to the Mass, which is strangely shadowed by hints of the music of war in the form of distant drum-rolls. In an inscription to one of his sketches Beethoven referred to the withdrawal of the sounds of war as a 'sign of peace'; still, it is striking how close to the end of the movement the disquieting drum-rolls appear. There is an almost epigrammatic quality to the end of the Missa solemnis. The chorus concludes with a concise statement of the lyrical phrase originally heard a capella, but not heard with the support of the strings and winds. An orchestral echo of the vocal phrase 'pacem, pacem' leads to the terse, four-bar conclusion in the full orchestra, played fortissimo. The end of the Mass is left ambiguous, since a prayer for peace is far from being its fulfilment. In the Missa solemnis the ultimate goal for human aspiration is located in a transcendental quest, as is reflected symbolically above all in the lofty referential sonorities of the Credo and the Benedictus" (Kinderman: 238-252).
After William Kinderman's sensitive tracing of the musical import of one aspect of Beethoven's spirituality in the Missa solemnis, we turn to Barry Cooper's comments to this work from his Beethoven book that was published in 2000 and that, as the works of Kinderman and Lockwood, in contrast to Solomon's psychologically enlightening biography, is primarily dedicated to Beethoven's work, from the viewpoint of the musicologist.
Beethoven repeatedly referred to the Missa solemnis as his greatest work, and with considerable justification. In both its emotional depth and its musical and intellectual ingenuity it is unsurpassed. The depth of his religious feelings during its period of composition is very evident, as was seen earlier, and in the autograph scroe these feelings find immediate expression in the inscription at its head: "From the heart--may it return--to the heart." Beethoven stated later: "My chief aim when I was composing this grand Mass was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings as much in the singers as in the listeners. He attempted to realize his intentions by careful attention to every word of the text; after writing it out with a translation and annotations to ensure he understood it thoroughly, he brought out its full meaning by using exceptionally vivid portrayal of each image, as he had done, for example, in his cantata Meeresstille.
A good example of this musical imagery is provided in the very first word, 'Kyrie' (Lord). The lord as omnipotent, eternal creator is portrayed by a massive orchestral D major chord, repeated twice, from which the rest of the work seems to flow; and the gesture is heard again a few bars later with the addition of the choir. This chord provides one of several symbol for the Deity in the Mass (God is clearly too vast a concept to be comprehended by a single symbol). The word 'Kyrie' in this context, however, denotes not only the Almighty but also the individual human voice addressing Him with the phrase 'Lord, have mercy'. Accordingly, the massive chords portraying the Lord are alternated with solo voices--tenor, then soprano, then alto--representing the individual suppliants begging for mercy. Thus Beethoven, while being absolutely direct in his imagery, ingeniously operates on more than one level simultaneously.
The beginning of the Gloria, with the words 'Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax . . . ' (Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace), contains further opportunities for vivid word-painting. Placing the words 'excelsis Deo' on high notes is obvious, but insufficient for Beethoven; the glory must also be herd to rise up to God, and so rising phrases are heard over and over again, sung by each voice in turn. By contrast, the phrase 'Et in terra pax/ is introduced by the basses, almost at the bottom of their register to portray the lowly Earth, and on a single pitch to denote the stillness of peace. A turn to the subdominant at the end of this passage reinforces the message, for the subdominant always has the effect of reducing tension.
The long text of the Credo presents many further images and ideas susceptible to obvious musical portrayal. For words such as 'omnipotentem' and 'descendit' Beethoven strains the bounds of what is musically possible: 'omnipotentem' must seem more powerful, the descent in 'descendit' further and steeper, than anything ever heard before, in order to drive home the message. For 'Et incarnatus est' ordinary tonal relationships are suspended, replaced by quasi-modal melodic lines and harmonic progressions not directed to a clear keynote, as if from another world. The Holy Spirit, likened to a dove in the Bible, then appears in the form of unmistakable bird-calls on the flute. Many other musical images representing aspects of the text appear in the reminder of the Credo, and no great musical insight is needed to perceive them--especially as they often appear in an extreme form.
For Beethoven, unlike Bach, the Sanctus ('Holy, holy, holy') demanded hushed and reverent devotion rather than triumphant celebration, and the tremolandos at the end of this section symbolize the trembling awe of those in the presence of God. The Sanctus and Benedictus are linked by a Praeludium, since it was common for the Consecration, where the bread and wine are transformed by the entry of the Divine presence, to take place at this moment in the Mass, often accompanied by organ improvisation. The Praeludium fulfils the function of this improvisation, and the Divine presence is represented by a solo violin, which enters at a high pitch at the end of the Praeludium and remains throughout the Benedictus.
Some of Beethoven's most original portrayals, however are found in the 'Dona nobis pacem' section, with the concept of 'peace' explored from all angles. The main character of the section, with its lilting rhythms, 6/8 metre, and imitation bird calls (bars 100-6), is clearly pastoral, as several commentators have suggested; that Beethoven was consciously evoking the pastoral idiom is confirmed by his comment 'pacem pastoralisch' amongst the sketches. Peace is broken during the movement by two interpolations. The first (bars 164-89) is military in character, with martial rhythms played by trumpets and drums, and the word 'war' itself appears more than once amongst the relevant sketches. The second interpolation (bars 266ff.) consist of a violent fugato for orchestra alone, and its 'presto' marking contrasts with the gentle allegretto vivace of the main part of the 'Dona'. A clue to this apparently puzzling passage is Beethoven's inscription at the head of the 'Dona': 'Prayer for inner and outer peace'. Whereas the first interpolation portrayed was as the threat to outer peace, this second one portrays inner turmoil as the threat to emotional and mental peace. Beethoven's earliest idea for this fugato was an entirely extraneous theme in a foreign key (C major), while a later sketch shows the main 'Dona' theme simply speeded up. The first idea fails since the disturbance is not from within, while the second fails since the theme is not greatly altered. Eventually he based the orchestral fugato on a horribly distorted version of the 'Dona' theme, as if the mind were being attacked internally. Thus he again sets the text by working on several different levels, portraying peace as a lack of violence, as cheerful mood, and as an Arcadian idyll, as well as relief from either war or mental anguish (both of which he had experienced so much in real life).
Some of Beethoven's means of expression in the Mass are therefore quite subtle; but many are extremely plain and direct. They convey something of the strength of emotion in the music's conception, and are designed to be intelligible to the most uninitiated listener. Indeed such blatant forms of word-painting might lead to charges of naivety, were it not for the extraordinary musical sophistication infusing the entire work. Beethoven binds it into a thoroughly unified whole through various technical means, despite the variety of individual images.
The key theme is based firmly around D major throughout, with certain subsidiary keys also playing an important role. AS in several of Beethoven's late works, these keys do not include the dominant, and the absence of any extended passages in A major is one of the most striking features about the overall tonality. Instead, the first section of the Kyrie moves through A major to F sharp major and eventually B minor for the start of the 'Christe'. This last key had already been signalled at the opening of the Kyrie. where a B minor chord is the first sound after the initial D major sonority; and that same B minor chord reappears at the start of the Agnus Dei (which, following tradition, begins away from the main tonic). In contrast to the weak dominant, much emphasis is placed on the subdominant--both the overall subdominant and local subdominants. The third section of the Kyrie has an extended passage in G major (bars 152-66), and the Gloria utilizes this key several times, with strong C major chords appearing daringly close to the end of the movement; indeed, since these C naturals are never cancelled again by C sharps, it could be argued that the Gloria actually ends in G with an imperfect cadence, rather than a plagal cadence in D. The 'Pleni' section ends inconclusively on a G major chord, and G major finally asserts itself fully in the Praeludium and Benedictus, before appearing more briefly in the Agnus Dei, Another key with long-range effect is B flat, the main key of the Credo (although this begins on the subdominant of B flat) and also of the 'Gratias' section of the Gloria. Its reappearance at the end of each of the two interpolations in the 'Dona' surely has symbolic significance: it recalls the concept of belief expressed in the Credo, and this enables inner and outer peace to be restored by the 'Lamb of God' to whom frantic appeals are made.
Each movement is also unified in its form. Some are based loosely on various kinds of modified sonata form, suitably adapted to the text. In particular there is a clear sense of recapitulation after tonal digression, in the Kyrie (bar 128(, the Benedictus (bar 167, where the recapitulation begins in the subdominant, C major), and the 'Dona' (bar 212, which also quickly veers to the subdominant. In the movements with long texts, unity is aided by recall of the opening motif. In the Gloria the initial idea reappears in the coda (bars 525 ff.) after the last 'Amen', providing a frame for the movement. In the Credo the opening motif, to the words 'Credo, credo', appears three times--once for each person of the Trinity (bars 5-11, 37-42, 267 ff.)--and is developed extensively the third time in a symphonic manner.
There is no prominent main theme underlying the whole work, but the movements have the same kind of affinity with each other as do those of Beethoven's symphonies. It is also possible to see more subtle connections: a distinctive motif in bars 3-6--ar rising 4th followed by stepwise descent, which has been described as a germinal figure for the work--reappears in various guises in later movements, including the main theme of 'in gloria Dei patris' in the second movement. Another subtle relationship appears in the endings of the five movements. The first four all end on a weak beat or half-bar, hinting that more is to follow; only in the Agnus Dei does the final chord begin on the first beat of the bar.
The Mass shows many retrospective features, and is firmly rooted in the Austrian Mass tradition. Yet the handling of these features is so original that the overall effect is entirely new and unrepeatable. Inevitably the work shows superficial similarities to many works of earlier times, but there are no specific allusions. One phrase in the 'Dona' is alleged to have been borrowed from the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's Messiah, but the sketches show that, like Beethoven's other supposed borrowings, the similarity was fortuitous, since the passage 'was conceived entirely from thematic material presented earlier and was not originally intended as a quotation from another work'.
The effort Beethoven put into composing the word is reflected in the vast number and complexity of the sketches, which are still far from thoroughly studied. It is also evident from the work's musical complexity. This reaches its apogee in the two great fugues at the close of the Gloria and Credo, with their intricate polyphonic writing and ingenious technical devices. Beethoven clearly devoted more time and energy to this work than to any other (with the possible exception of Fidelio in its various versions), and it was this devotion, coupled with the grandeur of the overall conception, with its eternal truths and time-honoured text, that enabled him to say with such confidence that this was his greatest work. It is therefore understandable that he spent so long on detailed adjustments after the last note had been written, and was so reluctant to part with this brain child. . . . " (Cooper: 291-296).
While Cooper's comments center on a specific discussion of Beethoven's musical imagery in the treatment of the text of the Mass as well as on a general discussion of its unity and overall effect, the point of departure in Lewis Lockwood's discussion appears to be Beethoven's ability to endow the work with a unified character. Let us see how Lockwood accomplishes this:
"The work exemplified Beethoven's attempt to unify a mass setting, inevitably less organically than he could unify a large instrumental composition, owing to the disparity in length and type of its movement. He approached the task with great awareness of the special requirements demanded by the declamation of the text and its religious meanings. The musical discourse grows in complexity from beginning to end. The Kyrie, an appeal for God's mercy, is by far the simplest and most direct movement, and it may be that the opening static chords symbolize the unalterable presence of God the Creator. Beginning with the Gloria the material becomes more arcane and ramified, suiting the greater length and complexity of the words. Beethoven sets each clause of text in a way that reflects its rhetorical shape and also represents its symbolic and liturgical meaning, at times making use of traditional musical figures, familiar over the centuries. The vast space established by the Kyrie continues to be exploited in the Gloria, which erupts in its first part in an Allegro vivace choral explosion, then moves through strongly contrasting passages and at last gives way to the slower tempo and delicate brushwork of the Qui tollis, leading eventually to the majestic D-major closing fugue on 'in gloria Dei patris, Amen." As if this fugue were not overwhelming in itself, the final measures return to the opening choral statements of "Gloria in excelsis Dei," now marked Presto, ending with the word "Gloria" heroically ringing out from the chorus after the last emphatic orchestral chord.
The Credo, with a text even longer and more complex than the Gloria, receives a comparably massive treatment, with numerous turnings and windings as the words are treated in various ways as doctrinal and suggestive of time-honored musical-rhetorical associations. Beethoven opens the Credo with a great leaping motif reminiscent of the opening of the Hammerklavier sonata (we may recall that behind the Hammerklavier opening lay the sketched idea "Vivat Rudolphus"!) Then he uses a short motif of four notes, first sounded by the choral basses with the word "Credo, Credo" to connect the disparate and far-flung parts of the Credo. Indicative of Beethoven's ways of binding large-scale structures together is his way of brining back this motif at two of the crucial important statements of the Creed, at the words "Credo in unum Dominum" and "Credo in spiritum sanctum." Thus this figure serves as a kind of choral motto that unifies the vast movement and also attaches it distantly to predecessors that used similar repetitions in the Credo, such as Haydn's "Saint Cecilia" Mass. Such insights into the complex unity of the work argue against the view of Theodor Adorno, for whom the Missa solemnis is an "alienated masterpiece" whose surface fragmentation is symptomatic of inner conflicts in the work that point to Beethoven's increasing disillusionment with the ideals of the Enlightenment. Adorno's view is a radical reversal of Richard Wagner's. Wagner who saw the Mass as a "strictly symphonic work of the truest Beethovenian spirit," in which "the vocal parts are handled quite in that sense of human instruments that Schopenhauer very rightly wished to see alone assigned to them." In other words, and with modifications of Wagner's view, it is possible to see in the dramatic complexities of this work and its many and varied uses of the orchestra some indications of its status as a symphonic choral work, though one in which all elements of instrumental material and tone color are influenced by its text interpretation. With that difference it is a companion to the Ninth Symphony despite its being, at the same time, a true mass in a tradition going back to Bach and through him to the earlier polyphonic mass tradition.
The Sanctus and Agnus dei hold further treasures. In the Sanctus the traditional question of form turns on the divisions of the text: Sanctus, Pleni, Osanna I, Benedictus, Osanna II. Of the many ways of formally dividing this sequence, which coincides with the most solemn passages of the liturgy--the consecration of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ--Beethoven chooses one that yields him maximum space for contrast and elaboration.
Part I: Sanctus (Adagio) + Pleni (Allegro pesante) + Osanna I (Presto); B minor-D major
Part II: Praeludium (Sostenuto ma non troppo); reduced orchestra alone, G major
Part III: Benedictus (Andante molto cantabile); full orchestra with solo violin+ Osanna II grafted on G major
The Praeludium has been aptly associated with a long-established tradition in which the silence during the elevation of the host was filled by an organ in a quiet improvisation. The unusual scoring of this short section, in which we might hear Beethoven imagining his own improvisational practice at this point, is organlike. It has no violins, the flutes and violas double one another in their low registers, and the slowly drifting harmonies create the sense of the unearthly while no singing takes place. Then this 'prelude' is retrospectively heard as preparation for the arrival of the solo violin, which occupies the unified orchestral high register.
Nothing in Beethoven's orchestral work, not the slow movements of any of his mature quartets or of the violin concerto, surpasses the intimate expressivity of the solo violin passages in the Benedictus, a pure expression of "blessedness."
The final movement in the Agnus dei, set in two large sections:
Agnus dei, qui tollis pecata mundi, miserere nobis; 4/4, B minor
Dona nobis pacem; 6/8 and changing meters and tempos, D major.
Since the Benedictus, like a symphonic slow movement, had ended the Sanctus in G major, the Agnus section must reestablish the home tonic, D major. It does that and much more. Its large-scale three-part design is fixed to end each part with the words, "miserere nobis." The Dona nobis section also has an inscription (this one fully intended in all copies): "Prayer for inner and outer peace" (Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden). The autograph score contains the words "Dona nobis pacem darstellend den innern und äussern Frieden" ("Dona nobis pacem presenting inner and outer peace [my italics]". Beethoven clearly thought of this movement as a frankly programmatic depiction, a full expression of the yearning for personal tranquility and for peace on earth. These ideas are symbolized by two sets of orchestral forces: one in D major, the other (the "military" component) in B-flat major (foreshadowing his contrast of just these keys for antagonistic and reconciling forces in the Ninth Symphony). Inserted into a large-scale variant of sonata form is the first "war" interlude, whose obsessive tympani on F presages a development of the opening theme, which then, after a second warlike passage, leads on to a massive recapitulation and to a lengthy coda that restores the tonic D and rounds out the movement and the whole vast structure in peace. Beethoven's depiction of "outer" war and peace reflects the capacity of the work to refer to the collective battles and struggles through which his generation had labored; it can also refer to the collective struggles that threaten and destroy peace in every age. (The Lebewohl Sonata had been written for the same archduke in the wake of the fearful bombardment of Vienna in 1809). Peace here would be the pax humana, the condition of life unblemished by war.
But "inner" in the heading signifies a deeper, personal pleas for peace; it refers to the peace of the soul, his own and that of every human being. If reflects his awareness of psychic turmoil in his own life, of the individual's struggle for equilibrium and tranquility; and it reflects the individual who lives in search of respite from the harsh contingencies of existence and the fear of death. For Beethoven, this therapeutic goal seemed to be unattainable in the circumstances of life outside art, but he could represent it in an artwork of the spiritual magnitude of this one, itself a surrogate for the "one day of pure joy" he had yearned for in the Heiligenstadt Testament. The Mass is thus not only his largest contribution to the expression of the spiritual, in the various senses of the term, it is also a symbolic representation of humanity's search for peace that can only be discovered through religious feeling, collectively and personally" (Lockwood: 407-411).
We hope that these contemporary comments on the Missa solemnis provided you with some interesting points of departure for your own deliberations on this subject and for your further listening experiences with this work.
Our next page features a list of the sources we used to create this section.