Behind Beethoven

As Chorale digs into Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, becomes more familiar with the music, and begins to develop some overview of the score, we become increasingly aware of Beethoven’s debt to the composers who preceded him.

We deal with two separate but overlapping aspects of this debt question:  contributions to Beethoven’s overall compositional style and voice, and specific contributions to the Missa Solemnis, reflecting the composer’s concept of what the work should be, and represent.  The former issue is huge, and beyond my analytical powers to describe; the latter, however, is curiously present for us, throughout our study of the work.

In 1814, writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote an essay, published in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, entitled “Alte und neue Kirchenmusik,” in which he decries the steady decline in the quality and dignity of church music since the baroque period.  The only two works he values are Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem (Bach’s B Minor Mass was not even published until 1818, and few people knew of it); contemporary composers, he feels, write in far too theatrical a style, when they write church music at all.  He ignores Beethoven’s earlier Mass in C altogether. Twentieth century writer Carl Dahlhaus suggests that Beethoven’s Missa was composed against the background of this essay, and that Beethoven, ever a fierce competitor, saw an opening here in which to produce something that would draw Hoffmann’s attention and praise.  He wrote as early as 1809 that “in the old church modes the devotion is divine…and God permit me to express it someday;” we know, through remarks in his conversation books and letters, that, having determined to compose the Missa, he set about systematically studying the religious music of earlier periods, from the time of Gregorian chant, through Palestrina, Handel, and Mozart-- all composers whom he greatly esteemed-- and that his musical language throughout the Missa often hearkens back to such “old-fashioned” procedures and archaisms as chant, modal harmonies, recitative, fugues, and plagal cadences.  Just prior to beginning work on the Missa, he wrote “In order to write true church music go through all the ecclesiastical chants of the monks etc.  Also look there for the stanzas in the most correct translations along with the most perfect prosody of all the Christian-Catholic psalms and hymns in general.”  The resulting Missa is a combination of modern and archaic styles, more deeply connected to older traditions than any other work Beethoven composed.  In the hands of a lesser composer, it would be a pastiche; but Beethoven never simply co-opts procedures and styles from earlier composers or musical forms; he completely absorbs what he co-opts, and synthesizes a statement that is wholly his own.  Performing the Missa, one seldom stops to scratch ones head and say, “Aha!  I know where he got this!” It all sounds like Beethoven, but Beethoven enriched.

As a boy, Beethoven studied and performed published keyboard works of J.S. Bach.  We have no record of his expressing great affection for Bach (in comparison to his effusive, public admiration of Handel), but, in his own way, he absorbed Bach's commitment to counterpoint, if not his ease and gracefulness with it.  He later studied counterpoint with Haydn, who did acknowledge his debt to Bach, and he seems to have absorbed, second hand, much of what Haydn learned from studying Bach.  Beethoven’s first mass had no fugues, and he was criticized for this by the very man for whom he composed the Missa; he made up for this in the Missa Solemnis, which contains two, in both the Gloria and Credo movements.  Neither fugue sounds anything like Bach; but each contains procedures Bach perfected, worked out in excruciating detail.  For many, Bach’s music typifies German church music of the 18th century; and to the extent to which this is true, Beethoven perhaps grudgingly acknowledges his debt to Bach, and to that tradition.  Clearly though, his greatest admiration and loyalty is reserved for the music of Handel and Haydn, and particularly for their best-known major works, Messiah and The Creation, each of which seems to lurk just below the surface of the Missa Solemnis. Bars 216-240 of the Beethoven’s Agnus Dei movement are linked by many writers to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, which Beethoven is known to have particularly admired; Beethoven’s sketchbooks do not suggest that he knowingly quoted this passage, though the music corresponds closely to Handel’s passage “And He shall reign forever and ever.”  Similarly, the Präludium, the instrumental passage beginning at bar 79 of Beethoven’s Sanctus/Benedictus movement, with its improvisatory character and lack of tonal center, recalls the “Representation of chaos” with which Haydn’s Creation commences.

Beethoven ends his Missa in a manner totally his own, without reference to anything preceding him.  Instead of a triumphant, Handelian assertion of the rightness of the cosmos, he ends a grand, 75-minute “Divine Heroic Symphony” (Paul Bekker) on what feels like a quiet question mark.  As Maynard Solomon concludes in his magisterial biography, “one wonders whether Beethoven indeed felt that he, or humanity, would win the prize of life everlasting.”  No antecedent existed for that sort of doubt;  here, Beethoven ventures into uncharted territory, pointing the way for those who followed him.