Tackling the Missa Solemnis

Northern Light and Thanksgiving break behind us, Chorale embarks now on a terrifying but exhilarating adventure—Beethoven’s  Missa Solemnis!

The Missa is reputed, among singers-- soloists and choristers alike-- to be the most difficult major work in the standard repertoire.  Beethoven expects his singers to sing for long periods of time at the extremes of their capacity-- very high and very low, very loud and very soft, very fast and very slow.  He seeks always to extend the expressive possibilities in music-- and rarely lets singers feel comfortable.  Palestrina, Handel, and Mozart are far easier on the voice and the intellect, and more gracious to sing—these composers seem to know and like the human voice, as well as the expressive and intellectual capacities of singers, and always make allowances for difficulties performers might encounter; singing their music, even their choral music, is almost like singing vocalises chosen by good teachers, to help maximize ones potential for tonal beauty and efficiency, as well as give one the framework for heartfelt expressiveness, free of the anxiety which is likely to make singers “clutch.” Even at their most dramatic, these composers prepare their crescendos and decrescendos, provide lots of support in the orchestra for difficult pitch changes and high notes, and never leave singers at their fatiguing extremes for very long.

Beethoven, on the other hand, is likely to leave a singer, or singers, on a high note for several measures in a row, at a continuous forte or fortissimo, and then suddenly require a pianissimo in another range entirely, arrived at by an awkward leap reflective of an unexpected harmonic modulation, with no doubling in the orchestra.  Not content to establish and then maintain a single tempo for the duration of a particular line of text and its musical setting, Beethoven, in the “Et vitam venturi, Amen” fugue of the Credo (bars 306-472), requires three:  Allegretto, Allegro, and Grave—and at the Grave (the slowest tempo in the entire Missa, up to this point), the choral voices sing at the highest extremes of their vocal ranges, at a forte volume level, with no fewer than seven sforzando accents in the course of five measures.   This, immediately after 126 measures of very demanding fugal coloratura.

Beethoven presents his performers with challenges that are physical, aural, and philosophical-- his works are difficult to imagine and encompass, from beginning to end, and singers who are not accustomed to singing them have a hard time just getting up the nerve to dive into them with any confidence.  As one would expect, Chorale’s singers are not particularly cowed by the metaphysical content of the work-- they are highly educated people, accustomed to grappling with difficult intellectual problems, and their relative success in the demanding professions they have chosen gives them confidence in confronting new and otherwise daunting challenges.  The response of individuals with whom I spoke, after our first rehearsal on the work, two weeks ago, was upbeat, excited, even cocky; I did not hear much fear or dread in their voices.  As time goes on, though, they will come to realize, on the most visceral level, that Beethoven demands far more than metaphysical understanding and appreciation--  he requires muscle, sinew, blood, and tears.

Chorale is up to eighty-five singers for this program—at least twenty-five more than we usually have.  We will be joined by forty singers from the chorus sponsored by the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, prepared by their regular chorus master, Bill Chin, for a final ensemble of 125-- a good size for this work, one that will balance the orchestra, and sound good in Symphony Center, where we will perform it.  We are somewhat crowded in our rehearsal hall, Hyde Park Union Church, but have been experimenting with seating arrangements, and are approaching a workable solution.  Enthusiasm, and the recognition that we are performing a fantastic program, will go a long ways toward easing our discomfort.

Missa Solemnis is not often performed, despite its position, along with J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, as one of the two greatest settings of the Mass ordinary.  I suspect this is more because it is so very difficult to mount, rather than because audiences are uncomfortable with it.  Performances in which I have participated have never failed to elicit an over the top response from the audience.  We are thrilled to present it, and thrilled to have such able partners in this venture, in the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, under the baton of Jay Friedman.  We have many weeks of hard work ahead of us (the concert is March 5), and and even then we will depend upon the peculiar spirit of Beethoven to carry us over the top.