BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Missa Solemnis, Op. 123

In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek hisfortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years before he had been sent toVienna by his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, for lessons with Mozart, butthe illness of his mother had forced his immediate return home. Before long,after his mother's death, he had been obliged to take charge of the welfare ofhis younger brothers, a task that his father was not competent to discharge.

As a boy Beethoven had had an erratic musical training throughhis father, a singer in the archiepiscopal musical establishment, latercontinued on sounder lines. In 1792 he was to take lessons from Haydn, fromwhom he later claimed to have learned nothing, followed by subsequent study ofcounterpoint with Albrechtsberger and Italian word-setting with Salieri. Armedwith introductions to members of the nobility in Vienna, he soon establishedhimself as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as a performer and as an adept inthe necessary art of improvisation. In the course of time he was to be widelyrecognised as a figure of remarkable genius and originality. At the same timehe became known as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, hiseccentricity all the greater because of increasing deafness, a failing that becameevident by the turn of the century. With the patient encouragement of patrons,he directed his attentions largely to composition, developing the inheritedclassical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and extending its bounds in a way thatpresented both an example and a challenge to the composers who came after him.

Among Beethoven's patrons and supporters in Vienna wasArchduke Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainer, the youngest son of the Emperor LeopoldII. Born in Florence in 1788, he had enjoyed a relatively enlightened childhoodthere, while his father was Grand Duke of Tuscany. The death of the EmperorJoseph II in 1790 brought the family back to Vienna. His father succeeded hisbrother as Emperor, but died in 1792, leaving the succession to the Archduke'sbrother Franz. Rudolph's inclinations were towards the arts, as his healthprevented indulgence in more martial activities, and, like Beethoven's earlierpatron in Bonn, towards the church. The relationship with Beethoven began in1803, when the composer became Rudolph's teacher, providing instruction andencouragement in composition, theory and the piano. These lessons continued,intermittently, over the following years, and Archduke Rudolph did much tosecure an income for Beethoven in the financial arrangements made in thedifficult year of 1809 to ensure that he remained in Vienna. Beethovendedicated a number of his finest works to the Archduke, including his fourthand fifth piano concertos, the so-called Archduke Trio, the Grosse Fuge, andthe Hammerklavier Sonata.

In 1805 Rudolph had been named as co-adjutor bishop ofOlm??tz (Olomouc) and in 1819 he was appointed Archbishop and Cardinal. It wasto mark this occasion that Beethoven set about the composition of hismonumental Missa Solemnis, a work that might be performed at the enthronementof the Archbishop. In the event the Mass was not completed in time and it wasnot until 1823 that the Cardinal-Archbishop received the new composition, whichhad its first partial performance in Vienna in 1824, followed by a fullperformance in St Petersburg, through the agency of Prince Galitzin. Beethovenhad worked on the Mass for some five years, preparing himself by a study ofHandel and of the appropriate church style. The period was not an easy one inthe composer's life, while matters were coming to a head in his struggles overhis nephew Karl with the boy's mother, widow of his brother Caspar Carl. At thesame time Beethoven's deafness was now acute and his eccentricities ofbehaviour extreme. Nevertheless it was in these years that he wrote hisremarkable last piano sonatas and his momentous last symphony, the latter firstheard in the Vienna concert of 1824 in which movements from the Missa Solemnis,a composition by which he set the greatest store, were given. The firstcomplete performance of the Mass, in Vienna, only took place after Beethoven'sdeath.

The Missa Solemnis is scored for an orchestra with the usualpairs of woodwind instruments, double bassoon, four horns, three trombones,trumpets and timpani, strings and organ, together with four solo singers andchorus. The work is conceived as a whole and has been described as afive-movement symphony, but in spite of its length it still has a possibleliturgical use, as at first intended. The D major Kyrie is marked Assaisostenuto and Mit Andacht (With devotion), with the superscription Von Herzen -moge es wieder - zu Herzen gehen! (From the heart - may it go again to theheart!). In the first section the soloists and choir combine in prayer, leadingto the central B minor Christe eleison, led by the soloists. The third Kyrie,directed to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is a greatlyvaried recapitulation.

The Gloria opens with a burst of triumph, hushed for amoment at the words et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, before thejubilant return in laudamus te. In a movement where the influence of Handel isperceptible, the clause glorificamus te provides a place for fugal writing.There is a change of mood and of key, to B flat major as the soloists introducethe words gratias agimus tibi. The woodwind and horns start the C majorLarghetto setting of qui tollis peccata mundi, led by the soloists. Theoriginal key is restored, before further modulation and word-painting at thewords miserere nobis, a plea reinforced by the trombones. A sudden hush isfollowed by a triumphant quoniam tu solus sanctus, in a phrase echoing Mozart'sTuba mirum. In gloria Dei Patris provides the opportunity for a great fuguewhich makes use of all possible contrapuntal techniques, before a finalunliturgical repetition of the opening words, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

The Credo, in B flat major, sets the opening statement ofbelief to a melody of strong contrapuntal possibilities, as voice after voiceenters, before finally uniting on the words unum Deum. There is a suddenquietness for et invisibilium, after which the Credo resumes, with the returnof the opening motif. Ante omnia saecula brings a pianissimo, soon interruptedby Deum de Deo, followed by the fugal consubstantialem Patri. There is furtherword-painting in what follows, leading to the necessary tranquil devotion of etincarnatus est, with its reduced orchestration and flute ornamentation, untilthe dramatic solo tenor announcement, et homo factus est. There is starkerdrama at the Crucifixus, and the sombre passus et sepultus est, tensiondispelled at Et resurrexit tertia die, leading to the fugal entries of theascending et ascendit in coelum. The trombones suggest the Last Trump atjudicare vivos et mortuos. The Credo motif returns accompanied by the laterclauses of the Creed and the double fugue at et vitam venturi saeculi, amonumental conclusion to this declaration of belief.

The Sanctus, an Adagio, again marked Mit Andacht, with theviolins at first silent, has the entry of the solo voices preceded by thechords of the trombones. The sense of awe, stressed by the tremolo of the lowerstrings, is interrupted by the joyful Pleni sunt coeli and fugato Osanna. Thereis a meditative Praeludium, scored for flutes, bassoon, lower strings andorgan, designed for the part of the Canon of the Mass before the Consecration.A violin solo, accompanied by flutes then clarinets, ushers in the Benedictus,the instrumental element continued with the entry of the solo voices in anextended, almost pastoral movement.

Disc: 1
Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
1 Kyrie eleison
2 Gloria - Gloria in excelsis Deo
3 Gloria - Qui tollis peccata mundi
4 Gloria - Quoniam tu solus sanctus
5 Credo - Credo in unum Deum
6 Credo - Et incarnatus est
7 Credo - Et resurrexit tertia die
8 Sanctus
9 Benedictus
10 Agnus Dei
11 Agnus Dei - Dona nobis pacem
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