Missa Solemnis by Thomas Wikman
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, opus 123, is a singular work, unmatched in its scope since Bach’s B minor mass. Scored for full orchestra of the time, plus chorus and a quartet of soloists, it represents an overwhelming challenge to all the performers, and perhaps most of all, the conductor. It’s hard to think of any other piece in the standard repertoire that when played by a great conductor, great orchestra, and chorus, that runs so great a chance of not really succeeding at all. I myself have witnessed such performances. I particularly remember certain movements that touched me greatly; Martinon’s Kyrie, Giulinini’s Crucifixus, Solti’s Et vitam venturi, etc.
What is it about this piece that is so daunting? First of all, the demands on the singers are extraordinary; in the Credo alone, there are 28 high B flats for the sopranos, many of them sustained for measures at a time, and at a high dynamic. All of the other choral parts and the solo parts are equally demanding.
Many have laid these problems to the fact that Beethoven was deaf at the time of writing the Mass. But, in fact, he had been deaf for over 20 years by the time he composed the Missa.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was described by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance.” The Missa Solemnis could well be described as “the apotheosis of the fugue.” Because of the nature of the text, Beethoven was deprived of two of his most trusted musical forms; namely, the sonata form and the variation form. However, in his later works, Beethoven turned more and more to the fugue, and no work exploits this more than the Missa.
The Kyrie plunges us immediately into the world of the sublime. After a 21-measure orchestral introduction, the chorus enters with massive chords, answered by the soloists, on the word “Kyrie.” In measure 36, the chorus takes up the word “Eleison, in wonderfully mystic polyphony. This continues until the “Christe,” which introduces a key change, and more importantly a time change to triple meter, in the fashion of Renaissance masses. The “Christe’s” smoothly flowing counterpoint is worthy of a Monteverdi. It begins with the soloists and passes to the chorus, which then produces a double-choir texture. As this winds down, we enter the final “Kyrie,” using the same original themes, but not the same music; new keys are explored. A 15-bar coda brings this wonderful movement to a peaceful conclusion.
The Gloria explodes like a rocket, with both the chorus and orchestra playing ascending themes, eventually settling down to chordal exclamations in the classic style, however heightened by Beethoven’s inspirational magic, culminating in a rugged fugue on the words “glorificamus te.” A short modulatory passage by the orchestra brings us to a new key, and a lovely, gracious motet-like passage for the soloists (Gratias animus tibi), twice interrupted by the full forces quoting the opening thematic material. A quiet orchestral interlude leads us to the poignant Qui tollis, cast as a double choir motet, with the soloists being choir I, and the chorus, choir II. The brief, declamatory Quoniam gives way to a wonderful double fugue on the words, In gloria Dei Patris, Amen. Just when one might think it is going to end, Beethoven returns to the opening words and thematic material, Gloria in excelsis Deo; indeed, the movement ends with three repetitions of the word, Gloria!
The Credo opens with a “head motif” that reappears through the movement, with the chorus singing over a striding orchestral accompaniment. A sudden transition and key change bring us to the hushed, mystical Et incarnates est, with the soloists taking the lead, and the chorus supplying a “second choir.” The mood turns very dark for the Crucifixus. This is the most “operatic” of all the movements in the Missa, with the orchestra supplying tremendous “hammer strokes” over the chorus’s powerful declamation, while the soloists sing a “wailing” motif. A brief a cappella setting (6 measures) on the words, Et resurrect leads to a thrilling setting of Et ascendit in coelum, with the chorus and orchestra rocketing scale-wise to their highest register. The movement continues in propulsive fashion until the words, Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, which returns us to the open musical material, but wholly transformed.This yields to one of the greatest movements in all music, the double fugue on the words Et vitam venturi. It starts at a modest tempo, but when the second theme enters, the tempo doubles and produces a fantastically difficult movement to sing and play. It is followed directly by a tremendous Grave, for full orchestra and chorus. The soloists enter with beautiful scale like passages, with the chorus supplying amens beneath them. This whole section acts as a mighty “exhalation,” after all the stormy music that proceeds it. The Credo ends in a very peaceful manner.
The Sanctus is of fairly conservative classical proportions. However, Beethoven being Beethoven, it has some unusual twists. The opening Adagio is for orchestra and soloists, the latter singing in a very low register. It is very atmospheric. The Pleni sunt Coeli and the following Osanna are fine Bachian fugues, which make a wonderful effect sung by the full chorus. But Beethoven marks these movements to be sung by the soloists! Even with Beethoven-era instruments, this is an almost impossible demand on the human voice. Most conductors opt for using the chorus. I’ve heard many performances of this piece, but have never heard these passages sung by the soloists.
The Benedictus is proceeded by a slow, solemn Prelude. In the 32nd measure, a solo violin enters, representing the descent of the Holy Spirit. As the movement proceeds, the chorus chants the text softly in the background. The soloists take up the thread, their theme being and inversion of the violin melody. This is truly music sent from Heaven! It places enormous demands on the soloists for long, sostenuto lines, which tax the extremes of their vocal compass. However, hearing this music sung by a great quartet is magical! Toward the end of the movement, the chorus takes up the quartet’s musical material and bring the Benedictus to a wonderful end!
The Agnus Dei begins in B minor. It is a grand scene, with the soloists spinning long lines, and the chorus functioning as a soft liturgical choir. It begins with the Bass soloist, singing the theme in a deep, profound register. The same material is then taken up by the Alto and Tenor, then finally by all 4 soloists together. It is music of both great sadness and great majesty. A short modulation brings us back to the key of D Major, where the chorus and orchestra pick up a new theme, sort of in the rhythm of Smetana’s “Moldau,” a barcarolle feeling in the chorus, with rushing 16th notes in the strings. This, in turn, gives way to a martial sound of trumpets and drums, all Haydn. But after repeated iterations of the word “Miserere,” brings the movement to a sudden close. No extended “Beethovian” endings for this piece.
There are really only two pieces like this in the repertoire; Bach’s B minor Mass, and this; both are glorious pieces of music!
An amusing note to end this, e.g. the abrupt ending. Georg Solti conducted this in Carnegie Hall. When he reached the end, no one applauded! After about 5-10 seconds, Solti turned to the audience, threw his hands in the air and said, “Dat’s it!”
Herbert Von Karajan