Preparing to write program notes involves always a fair amount of reading. Most of my time has been spent with the excellent biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford, but I’ve also read program notes by various writers. It’s interesting to see that with so much to write about this sprawling, intense work, the notes as well tend to be all over the place in terms of their tone, focus, and style. It’s possible that it’s just too difficult to write clearly about Beethoven’s masterwork, the “Grand Mass” the work that he, in a letter to Ferdinand Ries in 1823, called “my greatest work.” I shall, however, make a stab at it.
There are many possible reasons for Beethoven’s desire to set the Mass to music: He wanted to have the Mass premiered at the ceremony marking the promotion of the Archduke Rudolph, one of his most faithful and generous backers, to Archbishop of Olmütz. (In addition to wanting to honor Rudolph, Beethoven also wanted Rudolph to give him a Kapellmeister position.) That ceremony was held in 1820, but the Missa took Beethoven another 40 months to complete.
It’s just as likely that Beethoven wanted to measure himself against two masters of sacred music, Bach and Haydn, and against two works he admired passionately: Handel’s oratorio Messiah, and Mozart’s Requiem. (The fugue subject in the “Dona nobis pacem” is a quote from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” – “and he shall reign for ever and ever”.) And it could be that the composer wanted to write a more mature work than his Mass in C from 1807.
Beethoven began serious work on his Opus 123 in 1819. He spent hours studying the Latin text, other composers’ Mass settings, and the works of the Renaissance master of counterpoint, Palestrina. Swafford writes, “in youth he had come to feel closer to the divine in nature than in church or scripture. For the rest of his life he would have little to do with churches and priests. He preferred to deal with God directly, man to man. If he believed in eternal life, he did not unequivocally speak of it. Like most progressives of his time, he had no use for dogma concerning religion, art, or anything else.” (Jan Swafford, Beethoven, p. 305)
A setting of the Ordinary of the Mass is, by default, in five large sections. Beethoven sets each movement as a through-composed work, with the four vocal soloists’ music intertwining with the choir’s. In Opus 123, the Kyrie is the most easily understood, with its Classical phrasing and repetitive structure. The Gloria is an exuberant conglomeration of themes and word painting. The Credo gives us a fascinating look into Beethoven’s beliefs – the word “Credo” (“I believe”) insistently repeated, and other texts speeding past the ear, barely acknowledged. The Sanctus-Pleni sunt coeli-Osanna-Benedictus is somewhat traditional, after its melancholy opening, but then surprisingly brings us into an extended violin solo accompanied by voices. And the close of the work, the Agnus Dei – Dona nobis pacem wrenches us between pastoral peace and the drums and horns of war.
As in Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven takes a significant amount of time setting the three phrases of the Kyrie, with the “Christe eleison” section changing meter and moving faster than the two “Kyrie eleison” sections. The most striking aspect of Beethoven’s setting is the entrance of the opening D major chord on an upbeat, “like a premature shout of faith” (Phillip Huscher). The late conductor Robert Shaw wrote:
“Beethoven begins his work with silence – not unlike that silence which precedes biblical creation – “the darkness upon the face of the deep.” It has to be the most extraordinary “Down-beat” in the history of Western Music, for it makes of the hour and twenty minutes which follow it music’s most elaborate and dynamic “Up”-beat.” In this movement Beethoven lays out a set of notes which recur throughout the work (F# B A G F#), along with recurring descending minor 3rds (listen to the clarinet early on) – these latter will become the binding glue of the monumental “Et vitam venturi” fugue in the Credo. We also get our first taste of the dynamic contrasts that will pervade the work.
The voices rocket upwards in the opening measures, then drop to earth at “Et in terra pax”. More contrasts follow, including the vigorous “Glorificamus” theme alternating with the humble “Adoramus te”; the gorgeous middle section, the “Qui tollis”, with its aching “miserere nobis”; and the rousing, manic closing fugue (“in gloria Dei Patris, amen”). I like what Shaw says: “If it were placed at the end of the entire work, it would have listeners leaping and screaming in the aisles over the chorus’s final “Gloria!” Whenever the “Gloria” comes close to being adequately performed, it’s a wonder that the performance can continue – or needs to.”
This, the center of the Mass, is an amazing, confusing, glorious and intense movement. All of the voices are stretched to the utmost reaches of their ranges, and the orchestra is equal to the voices in its expression of the text. In the passage about the incarnation (“Et incarnatus est”) the flute plays birdcalls, representing the Holy Spirit coming from heaven as a dove (Swafford), while “the “Crucifixus” begins with the most literal of Beethoven’s musical illustrations, the hammering of nails through flesh into wood” (Shaw). In the “Crucifixus” the strings have a shivering, quaking figure, and the strings and winds repeatedly play a yearning, lamenting motif as the choir, as if numb, chants “passus, passus” before surging into one last “passus” and then receding almost into silence on “sepultus est.”
The only extended a capella section of the work occurs at “Et resurrexit”, and it lasts only six measures before launching into the “et ascendit” in which everyone in the room rockets up to the top of their range.
“Now comes the most dogmatic and troublesome part of the Credo. Christ sits at the right hand of God in judgment of the quick and the dead; then come the declarations of belief in the Trinity, in the one true church, in one baptism, in the resurrection of the dead. Again, it is not recorded precisely what Beethoven believed in regard to eternal life, likewise the celestial family and their cosmic courtroom. Of course, he could not presume to edit out the phrases dealing with these matters. Instead, he turned them to musical purposes: while the foreground takes up the opening Credo figure, in the background the dogmatic phrases are chanted like a priest rushing through the liturgy, creating a rhythmic energy that adds tremendous exhilaration to the cries of Credo! ” (Swafford p. 1798)
“As tradition dictates, et vitam venturi is a fugue, its subject here an expansion of the Credo motif. It is probably the most difficult fugue ever written for voices. Beethoven spins it out with a wondrous sense of timelessness. Like the Gloria fugue, it moves into a quicker tempo, but the end this time is a sublime and mysterious peace.” (Michael Steinberg, SF Symphony)
Instead of Bach’s glorious triplets and majestic fanfares celebrating the king of heaven, we have Beethoven writing dark, contemplative music. The four soloists end almost in a whisper before the choir enters with the joyful “Pleni sunt coeli” fugue followed by the dancing “Osanna”.
“The next pages, for orchestra alone, in a remarkable subdued organlike color, echo the beginning of the movement, with divided violas and cellos, the texture made ethereal by low flutes. In the event that this was an actual service, here the Eucharist would be celebrated. Beethoven labels the section Präludium. He has in mind the tradition in which organists would prelude, meaning improvise, during the Eucharist to join the Hosanna to the next section, the Benedictus.” (Swafford page 1803)
The sublime “Benedictus” is a moment out of time, a musical setting for violin solo, vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra, with the violin front and center. Phillip Huscher calls the solo “Beethoven’s own voice, searching for understanding and immortality.”
The final movement, like the Sanctus, begins in B minor, with a low tessitura in the instruments and voices. It builds in intensity as the voices plead for mercy, then after a last, softly chanted “Agnus Dei”, the sopranos begin, with the descending minor 3rds heard throughout the work, the lovely “Dona nobis pacem”. At this point in the score Beethoven writes: “a prayer for outward as well as inward peace”.
One might expect the movement to unfold in this pastoral mode, with occasional urgent pleas from the chorus (“pacem, pacem”), but Beethoven breaks the mood with an ominous timpani passage, flustered strings and bugle calls. The vocal soloists cry “Agnus Dei miserere nobis” and as Swafford writes, “In this moment Beethoven explodes the form, in the same way he did with the storm in the Pastoral Symphony. Armies have disrupted the rite, destroyed the peace. It is war.”
The pastoral prayer for peace returns, but is broken again by a “driving, militant fugue” with “the bugles…raging, the drums roaring, the choir crying Dona pacem! in terror.” (Swafford p. 1815). And again Beethoven pulls us back from the edge and returns to the tender and pleading “pacem”.
“In the stillness comes a gentle rainfall of scales, pianissimo and staccato. The chorus sings one last dona pacem to the Handelian phrase. And upon this mosaic, this often so private utterance in a public genre, this most intensely worked composition of his life, Beethoven sets a final radiant simplicity.” (Steinberg)
– Anne Watson Born