What IS a “missa solemnis”? And why did Beethoven compose one?

This is Chorale’s year for “solemn masses”-- we will present two of them:  Beethoven’s in March, Vierne’s in May.  Probably a good idea to try and clear the air on terminology before talking more specifically about these works.

The basic text and function of the Roman Catholic mass originated in the very early church.  This early development included the division of the text into an unvarying portion, called the “Ordinary,” and a portion appropriate to given days and festivals in the cyclical church year, called the “Propers.”  Originally chanted in unison (think Gregorian chant), the presentation of the mass text became increasingly elaborate; by the late Medieval period, and forward through the Renaissance, it had developed into the single most important musical form available to composers, inspiring their imagination, ingenuity, and creativity.

Most Mass settings include only the five parts which constitute the Ordinary—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei-- which are fixed, presenting the same texts each time mass is celebrated.  The term Missa Solemnis refers, technically, to a musical setting of all parts of the mass (except the readings)—the Ordinary and the Propers.  Because the Propers are specific to each day in the liturgical calendar, a true Missa Solemnis could be performed only once a year.  Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis comprises only the five Ordinary portions.  So why does he title it Missa Solemnis?

By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the term had come to stand for any mass setting which was particularly elaborate, or longer than average; Beethoven’s title is best understood in this sense of the term.  It can last anywhere from 71 minutes (John Elliott Gardner) to 83 minutes (Herbert von Karajan)-- too long, practically speaking, for liturgical performance;  it utilizes  a very large orchestra (by the standards of the early nineteenth century) and chorus, as well as soloists; and it features expressive language and devices which would overwhelm a worship service, even if it were not so long.

Beethoven was raised a Roman Catholic.  His grandfather was kapellmeister and bass singer at the electoral court in Bonn; his father was a court tenor.  As a child, growing up in this environment, Beethoven would naturally have assumed that he would one day hold a kapellmeister position himself, and compose music for the church.  Things did not work out that way for him; and as an adult he was not a regular church-goer, and was fundamentally opposed to a social order in which ordinary people were expected to defer to any sort of higher authority, including ecclesiastical authority.  He composed very little sacred music—and the two works preceding Missa Solemnis, Christ on the Mount of Olives and Mass in C, lack the weight and importance of other of Beethoven’s works which are contemporaneous with them, such as the Eroica and Pastorale Symphonies.  He did not actively oppose the Church, or Christianity in general; he just was not very interested, at least through most of his life.  Commentators suggest that he experienced a spiritual crisis around 1819—that he finally needed to come to terms with God and with his spiritual life, which he had largely put to the side, up to that point.  German music critic Paul Bekker wrote:

“Beethoven’s new material was the poetry of transcendental idealism.  He abandons such symbols from the visible world as he had used in the Eroica and succeeding works, and turns toward the invisible, the divine…the Mass became the second great turning-point of his art, as the Eroica had been the first.  The third symphony embodies the ‘poetic idea’ to which Beethoven was groping in preceding works; the Mass presents the same idea, transfigured and spiritualised.  Freedom, personal, social and ethical, is consecrated and raised to heights where every activity, even of an apparently earthly kind, is flooded with unearthly light.”

Beethoven began composing the Missa in the spring of 1819, upon learning that one of his most important patrons and students, Rudolph, Archduke of Austria, was to be made Archbishop of Olmütz, in Moravia.  Rudolph was one of the most generous and reliable of Beethoven’s patrons during the final twenty years of his life, and the composer dedicated many major works to him.  He told Rudolph of his planned presentation in a letter of June, 1819, and hoped that the mass would be performed during the installation ceremony.   The work grew to be larger and more complicated than he had anticipated, however, and he missed the date of the installation (March 9, 1820) by more than three years!  There seems little doubt, however, that his friendship and regard for the Archduke were sincere, and that, whatever else he hoped to gain, he intended the work as a gift of heartfelt appreciation; his inscription at the head of the score:  “von Herzen—möge es wieder—zu Herzen gehn!” (May it go from the heart to the heart!) seems to apply to his relationship with the archduke, as well as to his audience.  There is some indication, as well, that Beethoven hoped, even expected, to become the Archbishop’s kapelleister, though this expectation was never fulfilled.

Romain Rolland wrote that Beethoven had “a great need to commune with the Lamb, with the God of love and compassion,” but the Missa Solemnis “overflows the church by its spirit and its dimensions.” Beethoven’s personal regard for Rudolph did not lead him to exercise any sort of submission to the Catholic Church as a whole.  The work is not a good fit for either church or concert hall; Beethoven himself, on several occasions, called it “a grand oratorio,” and its first full performance, in St. Petersburg, was as an oratorio, rather than as a vehicle for worship.  He presented the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei in May, 1824, in Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theatre, under the title “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.”  And he offered to provide the Bonn publisher Nikolaus Simrock with a German-language version, to facilitate performance in Protestant communities.

But these various particulars do not diminish the religious significance of the work.  Beethoven later wrote, “My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners;” and in a letter to Archduke Rudolph, he wrote, “There is nothing higher than to approach the Godhead more nearly than other mortals and by means of that contact to spread the rays of the Godhead through the human race.”  He seems to stress, here, a special, personal (read, Protestant) relationship with God, as opposed to the hierarchical relationship so important in Catholic polity and theology.

Beethoven clearly intended to make money off the work, as well, and was not above manipulating the market for maximum profit.  William Drabkin writes, “The steps [Beethoven] took to sell the work are likewise exceedingly complex, and they do not reveal the composer in the best light as a human being.”  Already in 1820, years before the Missa was completed, he reached an agreement with Simrock for the publishing rights, and was paid a generous advance.  Two years later, when the work was completely sketched out, Beethoven secretly agreed to sell it to C.F. Peters, in Leipzig, for a higher fee yet.  And as completion of the work approached, he entered into negotiations with Artaria and Diabelli in Vienna, Schlesinger in Berlin, H.A. Probst in Leipzig, and B. Schott’s Sons in Mainz.  Finally, in 1825, he agreed to give it to Schott, presumably for the highest bid.  Simultaneously, Beethoven sent invitations to important personages to subscribe to hand-written copies of the Missa; ten copies were made and sent out in response, in 1823.    (As one can imagine, so complicated a publication and distribution history, along with the fact that proofreading and publication coincided with Beethoven’s final illness and death in 1827, contributed to a number of textual problems which have never been resolved.

This, then, is the background upon which the performers build their performance.