The Terrible Beauty of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

What can one say of Ludwig van Beethoven, about whom everything seems to have already been said? How about, “Beethoven lives!”? This fall, I saw that announcement inscribed on baseball hats and T-shirts to promote the National Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven concert series. Later the same day, I received further evidence of his existence at Sunday evening Mass. The recessional hymn was a bowdlerized version of the “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony. The following week, as I emerged from the Metro, I was greeted by a black street evangelist accompanying himself on a portable electric organ, belting out the same number: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

So, yes, Beethoven lives—perhaps more so than has any composer in history. No other composer has for more than a century and a half so completely and uninterruptedly dominated the world of music. Beethoven is the measure. He is at the pinnacle of music, but also at its divide. After Beethoven, composers thought that they had to produce a metaphysical and emotional apotheosis for a work to be considered worthy as music. For this reason Claude Debussy called the Ninth Symphony a “universal nightmare.” What, after all, was a composer supposed to do after that? For a contemporary of Beethoven like composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the answer was never to attempt to write a symphony. For Johannes Brahms, it was not even to try until he was forty. In any case, Beethoven decisively changed the rules of the game. His influence is so pervasive that it hardly occurs to anyone to ask if that influence is entirely salutary. One critic took the wonderfully iconoclastic view that Beethoven ruined music. By this he meant that the old ideals of proportion, grace, and fluency were smashed by him. Critic Harold Schonberg more delicately suggests something similar when he speaks of the effects of the Third Symphony: “With one convulsive wrench, music entered the nineteenth century.”

Beethoven is convulsive. He was certainly thought to be so in his era. One episode effectively illustrates this. Hector Berlioz persuaded his famous teacher, composer Jean Francois Lesueur, to attend a concert of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Paris. Lesueur went grudgingly, not expecting or wanting to be impressed. To Berlioz’s delight, Lesueur came reeling out of the performance, exclaiming: “It is incredible, wonderful! It stirred and affected and disturbed me to such a degree that when I came out of the box and tried to put on my hat I could not find my own head! Do not speak to me till tomorrow.” When Lesueur did speak he again admitted how deeply affected he had been, but said, “All the same, such music ought not to be written.” To appreciate Beethoven, one must recapture Lesueur’s reaction: to be stunned, even appalled by what one hears. This effort requires context.

Whereas Mozart’s music seems to descend from heaven, a graceful, breathtakingly beautiful revelation, Beethoven’s music rises up from the earth as an act of sheer will, straining to reach the Almighty by human effort alone. It is Promethean music: Its genius is man’s genius. A young Beethoven exclaimed, “I will seize fate by the throat.” One cannot imagine Haydn or Mozart saying such a thing, much less hearing it reflected in their music. Conversely, when an enthused audience picked up Haydn, still in his chair and paraded him around the concert hall after a performance of The Creation, Haydn threw his arms up toward heaven and shouted, “It was from him.” Beethoven makes no such acknowledgment. Writing a friend, he once proclaimed, “I don’t want to know anything about your system of ethics. Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine.” Beethoven is fate being seized by the throat—in music.

Beethoven unlocked in music, to an extent never before thought possible, the power of sound. He did this as the supreme tonal architect of large-scale harmonic structures. These structures, often developed from no more than a motif of four hammered notes, unleashed latent energies of terrifying intensity. It is frightening music. Power is not pretty or polite. It is rude, brusque, violent—almost paralyzingly so. Beethoven’s contemporaries heard this in his works, as should we. Yet they also heard something else—an artist reaching the limits of the sublime in human expression.

One of those expressions took the form of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, referred to by him in 1822 as “the greatest work I have composed so far.” It is a composition from the same late period as the Ninth Symphony, with which it premiered in Vienna. (At this performance Beethoven had to be turned around to face the audience unable to hear the tumultuous applause.)

Why would Beethoven, this generator of power, write a Mass? He was raised Catholic but was anything but a conventional believer. Yet he was more than an Enlightenment deist, and should not be judged solely on his proto-Nietzschean remarks about strength. He believed in a “dear Father” in heaven who would hear and intercede on account of prayer. He kept on his table, framed in glass, three quotations from the ancient Egyptian religion, culled from a book by Schiller. “I am that which is” is the first and the other two are almost equally orthodox from a Christian perspective. In 1818, Beethoven wrote, “Socrates and Jesus were my models.” Beethoven seems to have been seeking a synthesis of the ancient and Christian religions. Personally, Beethoven journeyed through the dark night of the soul, driven by his progressively worsening deafness. Through whatever resources, he overcame the temptation to suicide. By 1827, the man who would “seize Fate by the throat” wrote, “I am resigned to accept whatever Fate may bring.”

When his friend, the Archduke Rudolf, was elevated to the Archbishopric of Olmütz, Beethoven was inspired to harness the enormous musical energy he could generate to a grand Mass. Formally, Beethoven set out to restore “true church music” by purging it of Italian opera influences and regrounding it in Palestrina’s polyphony. But his real ambition went far beyond that. Beethoven wrote to Archduke Rudolph that “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.” While referring to Rudolf, Beethoven was really speaking of himself. As he later said, “My chief aim when I was composing this grand Mass was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings, not only in the singers, but also in the listeners.” How could Beethoven do this—spread the rays of the Godhead—unless he too had approached the Godhead more nearly than other mortals? Having done so, what had Beethoven learned? The answer is: many things, but the one thing that stands out is the reality of God’s power. To this day and in this sense, the Missa Solemnis is the most powerful Mass ever written.

The Missa Solemnis is a massive, complex, and dramatic work, the frequent extremes of which are likely to leave the first-time listener overwhelmed, if not bewildered. The Missa is not a work to soothe the ears or the spirit. One gets the impression from it that Beethoven tried to seize every word in the text, and shake out every ounce of its meaning. Here, there is only space to mention a few of the Missa’s highlights.

In the choral sections of the Kyrie, the call for mercy is constantly folding back upon itself and is ever emerging anew, effectively creating the impression that the cry is universal, the cry of everyone, everywhere, and from all time: “Lord, have mercy!” When the soloists issue the same cry it is all the more poignant as the lonely voices rise from the chorus.

The Gloria begins with jarring bolts of energy and a breathtaking upward rush in both orchestra and chorus. It sounds like the Second Coming: Christ on rolling clouds of thunder. As depicted here, clearly God’s glory is his power before which all should tremble in awe. This must be the most electrifying Gloria ever written.

The Credo is the triumph of the will to believe. The act of belief almost seems more important than what is believed. Yet few composers have set the “Et incarnatus est” more exquisitely or movingly, or conceived a more triumphantly joyous “Et resurrexit.” Beethoven’s friends reported that they heard him howling and stamping at the piano as he worked on the great double fugue that ends this movement at the “Et vitam venturi.” To this promise of eternal life, the concluding Amens seem to resound endlessly.

The beginning of the Sanctus is quite unique. I have never heard a more mournful Sanctus. It is the wretched abjection of the unholy in the presence of the Most Holy—until hope erupts unexpectedly and joyfully in the “Pleni sunt caeli.” This movement, as it melds with the beautiful Benedictus, is the most seraphic of them all.

The Agnus Dei begins with a lament, the sinner before the Lamb. For its first third it expresses profoundly moving sorrow. Then consolation blissfully arrives and peace is triumphantly announced. But this inner peace is interrupted as pleas for mercy are made against the clamor of war, evoked by the martial passages in the brass and timpani. The threat to peace becomes external violence. Beethoven assembles another double fugue to extinguish this threat, and so the Missa ends.

Beethoven had plans to write several more Masses and a requiem, but such was not to be. He died on March 27, 1827, during a violent storm. Shortly before, he had reluctantly received the last rites. After a flash of lightening and a clap of thunder, the expiring man lifted his fist and shook it at the elements. What had the deaf man heard? Did fate have the last Word?

Masterful Missas

Each of these recordings of the Missa reveals different aspects of this difficult work.

New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Otto Klemperer (EMI CMS 7 69538 2). Klemperer’s monumental approach brings to this work an overwhelming massiveness and majesty, and a sense of inevitability. A deservedly legendary performance from a master-builder.

Vienna Philharmonic and three choirs, directed by James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon 435 770 2). James Levine’s is also a large-scaled performance, but a radiant one and highly expressive. Perhaps the most beautifully operatic rendering of this non-operatic Mass with an all-star cast.

The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, directed by, John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archly 429 779 2). Anyone puzzled by my remarks about how terrifying Beethoven’s music can be should listen to this electrifying performance (made with small period forces). This kind of highly-charged approach may be hard to live with but has to be heard. This CD won the Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 1991.

Orchestre des Champs Elysses and the Choeurs de la Chapelle Royale et du Collegium Vocale, directed by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901557). This has many of the merits of the Gardiner version but is less manic and easier to live with. The music sounds less willful and more normal. It also is beautifully done with period forces.

These CDs can be ordered through Eighth Day Books: 800-841-2541.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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