Beethoven's Missa Solemnis: March 5, 2012, 7:30 p.m. Symphony Center

Our Beethoven Missa Solemnis performance looms over and ahead of us—Monday, March 5, it all comes together.  Chorale’s eighty-six singers have now met and rehearsed with Oak Park/River Forest’s forty-two, and begun the process of melding our sounds and approaches into one grand chorus of 128.  Each ensemble has “retreated” for a few days, to continue its own detail work, before joining forces again next Saturday, February 25; from that point forward, we are one group.

What an immense project this is!  I was gratified to read in an article by New York Times music critic Alex Ross, that a perfect performance of this work is impossible—glad to know that I was not alone in discovering this.  Any performance of late Beethoven must necessarily include in its experience the striving, the sweat, the fatigue, the flawed heroism, the all-too-fragile mortality, as well as the genius, of Beethoven himself—as Ross wrote, only cyber-musicians could get it all right; and then we would miss the very life Beethoven expended in composing this masterwork.  Glenn Gould’s iconic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works would be incomplete without the pianist’s breathing, grunting, and singing, always present in the background as a part of the listeners’ experience; in like manner, the herculean attempts of Beethoven’s performers, sharing in the composer’s own humanity, to scale this mountain, reveal the truth behind Beethoven’s vision-- exposing us, with Beethoven, as necessarily less-than-godlike in our striving.

Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, born nineteen years after Beethoven’s death, wrote, “Make no little plans…aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency…Think big.”  I wonder if Burnham’s vision, which shaped so much of the Chicago we know today, doesn’t have a lot to do with Chicago’s ever-renewed love affair with Beethoven.  Between them, Beethoven and Burnham dominated a century, informing and challenging all who followed them in their respective fields.  Beethoven is in our civic DNA; the very ground rises to meet him, when he walks abroad.  Hate him or love him, he grabs our attention.

The greatest, most profound challenge confronting the performers, is to hear and comprehend the work—to understand Beethoven’s harmonic, rhythmic, rhetorical vocabulary, to feel and be able to predict where he is going next, to sense the whole amongst all the seemingly random, awkward, disconnected details.   Really, they never are random, awkward, or disconnected; but Beethoven’s structure is so enormous, we don’t hear or feel or understand from one end to the other, without agonizing repetition and immersion in his seething cauldron of materials.  Vocal production, intonation, rhythmic clarity, pronunciation-- all of these very important aspects of our performance finally hang from one central crosspiece: oneness with Beethoven and his vision.  One can rant, as I often have:  “This guy is an egomaniac!  He requires total conformity, total submission, total sacrifice; who does he think he is: God?” --and I expect that response will always inform at least a portion of my feelings about the man and his music. Finally, though, one has to trust, become what Beethoven wants one to become, and do ones darnedest to be faithful to him.  One can’t wait to sing the performance; and one can’t wait to be free of him, once it is over.

Like Shakespeare, Beethoven fires on every level.  No audience member is left out-- he presents challenges, and joys, that can be shared by all.  My eight-year old son has been sitting in on rehearsals, and has memorized much of the “Et vitam venturi” fugue subject—not because he tried, or was required to do so, but because it is a great fugue subject; it is fun, it is clever, it is balanced.  He enjoys whistling it for his friends, tapping any surface within reach to keep his syncopations straight.   The whole experience sends him off into a different world.  In like manner—when the military, “Napoleonic” music interrupts the “Dona nobis pacem” theme of the final movement, causing soloists and chorus to scream out, “Agnus, agnus Dei!” in terror, Joey gets it—Beethoven’s technique is direct, visceral, compelling, immediately perceived by anyone within earshot.    Beethoven is not holed up in some sound-proofed office, with headphones on—he is among us, he shares our life, our joys and fears and pains and aspirations.

Beethoven is one of our greatest composers; he, himself, called Missa Solemnis his greatest work.