Tragic Beethoven

In my reading and study leading up to Chorale’s Missa Solemnis project, I encountered, again and again, the “problem” of the final movement.  Beethoven’s models, his predecessors, would have concluded so grand a work with a glorious, triumphant finale:  think Messiah, B Minor Mass, Creation-- each ends with an immensely satisfying, uplifting, triumphant conclusion, bringing exhilarated audiences to their feet.  Missa Solemnis, by contrast, seems almost to end with a whisper (Maynard Solomon).

Almost thirty years ago, I sang in a master class for the great English tenor, Peter Pears, at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Ostensibly, the class was about the music of Benjamin Britten; somehow, though, Pears got onto the subject of Beethoven—specifically, Britten’s distrust, dislike, even hatred, of Beethoven, and his life-long struggle to come out from under Beethoven’s shadow.  I think I remember this so vividly because I have felt the same way about Beethoven—nothing rational or justifiable, just visceral resentment concerning his power, his dominance, his “heroism.” And despite the many times I have had the opportunity to sing Missa Solemnis, I have never, until this preparation period, been able to free myself of this resentment.  Now, though, after these months of immersion, I find myself leaving this strange resentment behind—and I believe my way out, has been through this final movement, the Agnus Dei/Dona nobis pacem.

The Agnus begins, traditionally enough, with a dark, mournful setting, in low voice, of the text, “Lamb of God, have mercy upon us.”  And the Dona, “Grant us peace,” answers, also traditionally, with positive, upbeat, polyphonic music, which seems to gather force and build toward a traditional, triumphant ending—when, suddenly, this stirring music is interrupted by a passage of what William Drabkin calls “war music”—he describes the remainder of the movement as a struggle between War and Peace.  Study of Beethoven’s sketches reveals that this is the portion of the movement which gave Beethoven the most difficulty—he composed several versions of it, the final one of which was the last part of the Missa to be completed.  In rehearsal, I refer to this music as the “Napoleon music”—Napoleon’s armies are just on the other side of the hill, destroying, sowing chaos, laying waste, negating the peace which we are proclaiming, praying for, celebrating—soloists and chorus alike scream out, “Lamb of God, have mercy on us!”  The Dona music returns, reassuringly, only to be interrupted, again, by War music so chaotic in its rhythm, its harmonic structure, as to destroy all the progress chorus and orchestra have made to that point—again, the chorus cries out, “Lamb of God!” and the Dona music returns.  We are not so reassured this time; indeed, the War music interjects itself twice more before the end of the movement, reminding us that Napoleon is still just over the hill, still destroying, still sowing chaos.  Almost with a sense of exhaustion, certainly of realistic sobriety, the movement closes without ceremony—a final “Give us peace,” but no “Amen.”

I find here Beethoven the man—his greatness, his heroism, his mastery, but also his sense of his own mortality, his weakness, his various failures, his approaching end.  He did after all understand what the rest of us understand-- that we all stumble and fall, and sometimes God doesn’t seem to catch us before we hit the ground.

My family experienced a tragic death this past week; a promising, shining fifteen year old boy, suddenly dead before his promise could be realized.  His funeral and the events surrounding it were heartrendingly sad; he stumbled and fell, and was not caught in time.  His family, his friends—all wonder why this happened, what sense there could be to it; and throughout these days, I have been hearing Napoleon in the next valley, threatening, destroying, leaving chaos where we thought order reigned.  I think I shall always re-experience Nathan’s death when I hear this final movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; and I shall always honor Beethoven for giving up his triumphant finale, and instead revealing this truth so skillfully, so artfully, so feelingly.