From the Heart: Beethoven’s Great Question

From the heart – may it return again – to the heart.

Ludwig van Beethoven, as written on the autograph score

In the last decade of his life, Beethoven turned his mind to composing an oratorio–a mass to celebrate the Archduke Rudolf’s appointment to Archbishop. Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron, student, and friend, commissioned the work, but Beethoven delivered the score four years later (which was three years too late).

It had been seven years since Beethoven had undertaken a work of this size and scale.  To prepare for the composition, Beethoven studied dozens of oratorios, from Christian plainchant to Palestrina and right on through through to Haydn and Mozart’s Requiem.  Handel’s Messiah was a particularly strong influence, as Beethoven quotes it significantly, paricularly in the Dona nobis pacem section (compare with Handel’s “And he shall reign” from Messiah ). But the dominant force here is Bach. Similar in structure and intent to the B Minor Mass, Beethoven here also composed a work that was far too long for liturgical purposes. Both Bach and Beethoven used these latter-day compositions to work out their own personal struggles with faith, delivering deeply moving music grounded in the many innovations that marked them as two of the greatest composers in history.

Before diving into the music, let’s address the elephant in the room. Many later-day historians have suggested that Beethoven was an atheist, but I see little in the record to justify this view.  Certainly, he was profoundly influenced by and contributed to the Enlightenment movement and was not overtly pious in a way that Bach was.  It may also be that he struggled with his faith.  Milton may have been able to reconcile his loss of sight with his faith, but Beethoven sruggled mightily with his disability and had seriously considered suicide as early as 1802. True to his nature, Beethoven’s faith was deeply personal. I read somewhere that Beethoven, a Catholic, had replaced the Trinity with God, Humanity and Nature.  This makes sense—ultimately, Beethoven sought to reconcile his faith with the ideals of the Enlightenment around the concepts of respect for nature and peace and love for all mankind. 

To the music: Let’s begin with the undeniable fact that the score cannot possibly be performed as written. By now, Beethoven had achieved notariety for composing music (particularly in his Late Period) that was beyond the technical skills of contemporary musicians. While these works still remain challenging, the Missa Solemnis alone retains is aura of being unplayable. First, there is the incredible taxation Beethoven extracts from the human voice–the sopranos, in particular, are called upon to sustain notes at the very top of their range (high A and high B Flat) for what seems like an eternity (and at full volume no less). Instrumentalists are faced with similar challenges. The most notorious example may be the contrabassons, which are commanded to open the Gloria section at fortissimo for 42 bars of rapid fire eight notes. They are later expected to hold a single note for 18 measures, at least half a minute, at full volume without breathing. And yet these extraordinary challenges profoundly affect both the performance and quality music created. Peforming at the very edge of what is possible, striving for what is technically impossible–well, that’s something I can actually relate to. Your playing can never be relaxed or assured. There is always a frenetic energy to what you are doing. Terror lurks at the heart of the music as if things could go off the rail at any time and Beethoven’s mass derives at least part of its strength from this inherent strain and tension.

The formal sections of a mass are, in order, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Let’s take them in order:

Right off the bat, Beethoven’s Kyrie announces that things are going to be quite different from any mass written up to that date. After an opening fanfare, Beethoven starts his grand mass from nearly nothing at all, building the harmony, bit by bit, until–the full chorus enters, Kyrie! This part of the mass–Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy)–is traditionally set, with polyphonic medidations on the very brief text. But there is a power lurking behind the chorus that prefigures what is to come.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

And that power is fully revealed in the Gloria section. No one ever wrote a Gloria like this one. Not for the last time, Beethoven turns up the orchestra and chorus to 11 boldly proclaiming: Gloira in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest). Here, Beethoven unleashes the full range of his bag of tricks. Complex fugues, which have come feature regularly in his Late Period music, are used to convey the praise of the masses, while Beethoven tunes up the melodic, harmonic and dynamic elements of the music to better explicate the text. And if that opening stood your hair on end, that doesn’t have a patch on the finale of the section–two massive fugues on the final line of the text (in gloria Dei Patris. Amen) followed by an instrumentally-led section of unsurpassing power and beauty and the chorus shouting Gloria! at the close. The one and only time I’ve seen this live, the performers wisely took an extended break here.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te. Adoramus te. Benedicimus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, rex coelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris:

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus:
Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

That break is needed, because it is the next section–Credo–that the mass gets down to business. This is the Creed, as first set down by the Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea in 326. Setting aside the very complext theological and political debates that were settled by Constantine, the Nicene Creed has endured at the heart of the Catholic mass, with some minor alterations, ever since. This statement of the Christian faith also lay at the very core of Bach’s Lutheran faith and the old German master treated each and every word with equal reverence. Not so Beethoven, who is ever true to himself, first and foremost. Recall that the entire purpose of this mass was to celebrate the ascension of his good friend and patron to Archbishop of the Catholic Church. And yet Beethoven, ever contemptuous of organized religion in general, buries the part of the creed that proclaims belief in one Catholic Church. Instead, Beethoven focuses on themes of suffering and salvation, especially the concluding text Et vitam ventura saeculi (And the life of the world to come). This is the biggest clue yet as to as to what Beethoven is getting at here. Throughout his life, Beethoven has seen suffering. Suffering on the European plains in the many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Suffering in the cities, whether during the persecutions of the Terror in Paris or by the aristocracy in Vienna (indeed, Beethoven was on a police watch list at this time). And, perhaps most keenly, the suffering of the fledgling European democractic movement that was so near and dear to Beethoven’s heart. Is it any wonder that his concerns are for future generations? Recall his inscription on the autograph score–“from the heart–may it return–to the heart.” This is the Catholic Creed, edited by Beethoven.

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, not factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: ET HOMO FACTUS EST. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus, et sepultus est. Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas. Et ascendit in coelum: sedet ad dexteram Patris. Et iterum venturus est com gloria judicare vivos et mortuos, cujus regni non erit finis.

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit. Qui cum Patre, et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per Prophetas. Credo in unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Etvitam ventura saeculi. Amen.

The Sanctus and Benedictus lie at the heart of the mass, as they introduce the miracle of the Eucharist–the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Here we find Beethoven at his most introspective and spiritual, even as he collapses these two sections into one seemless movement. In particular, the slowly evolving harmony of the Benedictus is among the most beautiful Beethoven ever composed. Not content to wait in silence for the elevation of the Host, Beethoven takes care to slowly evolve his music, from the lightest of touches–violin and flute–to a more robust, yet gentle, entwining of brass, timpani and voice joining one of the great solo violin parts in all of orchestral music. It is like a mini-violin concerto in the middle of a mass. That violin speaks to me with such tenderness and compassion that I can only concluyde that this is Beethoven’s homage to his best and greatest friend, who quite literally comes now in the name of the Lord.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Osanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Osanna in excelsis.

Which brings us to the end, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Again, this is unlike any Agnus Dei previously composed. While prior composers uniformly paint this great prayer for peace in bright and uplifting tones, Beethoven’s version is decidedly unsettled, more anxious, and completely uncertain–after all, he has already indicated his concern for future generations here on Earth. Ultimately, I think that Beethoven’s plea for peace is for us, not him–his notes to the closing line–Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace)– is annotated to underline that this prayer is for both inner and outer peace. And it has to be said Beethoven does not appear to be particularly hopeful. This section is full of melancholy music. Practically merging opera with oratorio, Beethoven amps up the drama in a heartwrenching duet and robust choruses. And the closing? Unprecedented. Over an hour of what might just be the most glorious music ever composed ends abruptly on a very simple cadence that doesn’t fully resolve the harmonic tension. The effect is among the most shocking in music history. Often, the Dona nobis pacem is described as a prayer for peace amidst the drumbeats of war: It is a warning from Beethoven that faith alone is not enough. Without the ideals of the Enlightenment–liberty, tolerance, equality–there can be no true peace for mankind. And Beethoven’s music questions whether mankind can ever truly achieve those ideals. That, most of all, is why the ending of this great mass is so profoundly unsettling for me.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Dona nobis pacem.

Bach and Beethoven thus reach different conclusions at the end of their great masses. For Bach, that radiant light that comes at the end of his B Minor Mass, among the most trancendent moments in music history, is an affirmation of his faith, a perfect resolution to much more than just 90 minutes of music. This is the Answer to all of the questions he raises, both harmonically and spiritually throughout the mass.

Beethoven, however, leaves us with only a question, rather than an answer, at the end of the Missa Solemnis. I cannot put that question into words, for it is far too great and terrible a question for mere language to convey. In no small irony, Douglas Adams got closest (a feat largely uncelebrated, given the lavish attention given to his “answer”):

O Deep Thought computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”
“The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Beethoven’s audience would need to wait for that answer (although not quite as long as Fook and Lunkwill’s descendants did). But, oh, what an answer! Let’s just say it was a sight better than “42”. Tune in next week.

It is often overlooked in the history of music, but Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a capstone work of sort, the end of a long and glorious musical tradition. Bach’s B Minor Mass put the first crack into the edifice, signalling that the mass need not be usable for a religious service. Beethoven goes further, questioning whether the religion bit was necessary at all. And that ended it. Other major composers would continue to produce religious works, but the Missa Solemnis is the end of the road, the last full-scale mass composed by a historically significant composer. Here, it is.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Op. 123:

There are so many wonderful recordings of the Missa Solemnis, each of which provides their own joys and insights. Like much of Beethoven’s Late Period music, there can be no one definitive version. I chose the recent video of Kent Nagano and the Concerto Köln here because the YouTube sound quality is excellent, it is a period instrument performance, the tempo is driven the way that I like it, and he absolutely nails the ending. The fact it was recorded in a church, so the acoustics are appropriate, is the icing on the cake.

Other recommended recordings include, no shock here, John Eliot Gardiner’s two recordings, Nikolaus Harnocourt’s two recordings (the second is a sonic marvel, but I find the tempos to be too slow for my taste), Philippe Herreweghe’s recording with the Collegium Vocale Ghent (who I saw live!), Otto Klemperer’s recording from the early days of stereo with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1960ish recording live with the NY Philharmonic (as opposed to his later versions that are just too slow and devoid of the manic energy of this recording). Bruno Walter’s version is legendary, but incredibly hard to track down, while Eric Kleiber’s version suffers from particularly bad sound. Give a pass to James Levine, star-studded as that version is, Levine manages to strip all of the energy from the work with his characteristically show tempos. But whichever version you choose, be sure to crank the volume. This is not background music.