The Missa solemnis
in D Major, Op.
123 was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven
from 1819-1823. It was first performed on April 7
in St. Petersburg
, under the auspices of Beethoven's patron Prince Nikolai Galitzin
; an incomplete performance was given in Vienna
on 7 May 1824
, when the Kyrie, Credo
, and Agnus Dei
were conducted by the composer. It is generally considered to be one of the composer's supreme achievements. Together with Bach's Mass in B Minor
, it is the most significant mass setting
of the common practice period
Unquestionably a great work, representing Beethoven at the height of his powers, it has notably failed to reach the popularity of many of the symphonies and sonatas. Written around the same time as his ninth symphony, it is Beethoven's second setting of the mass, after his Mass in C, Op. 86, a work far less admired.
The mass is scored for 2 flutes; 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A, C, and B); 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns (in D, E, B basso, E, and G); 2 trumpets (D, B, and C); alto, tenor, and bass trombone; timpani; organ continuo; strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and basses); soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists; and soprano, alto, tenor, and bass chorus.
Like most masses, Beethoven's Missa solemnis
is in five movements:
- Kyrie: Perhaps the most traditional of the mass movements, the Kyrie is in a traditional ABA' structure, with stately choral writing in the first movement section and more contrapuntal voice leading in the Christe.
- Gloria: Quickly shifting textures and themes highlight each portion of the Gloria text, in a beginning to the movement that is almost encyclopedic in its exploration of 3/4 time. The movement ends with the first of the work's two massive fugues, on the text "In gloria Dei patris. Amen", leading into a recapitulation of the initial Gloria text and music.
- Credo: One of the most remarkable movements to come from Beethoven's pen opens with a chord sequence that will be used again in the movement to effect modulations. The Credo, like the Gloria, is an often disorienting, mad rush through the text. The poignant modal harmonies for the "et incarnatus" yield to ever more expressive heights through the "crucifixus", and into a remarkable, a cappella setting of the "et resurrexit" that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the closing fugue on "et vitam venturi" that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire, when the subject returns at doubled tempo for a thrilling conclusion.
The form of the Credo is divided into four parts: (I) allegro ma non troppo through "descendit de coelis" in B-flat; (II) "Incarnatus est" through "Resurrexit" in D; (III) "Et ascendit" through the Credo recapitulation in F; (IV) Fugue and Coda "et vitam venturi saeculi, amen" in B-flat.
- Sanctus: Up until the benedictus of the Sanctus, the Missa solemnis is of fairly normal classical proportions. But then, after an orchestral preludio, a solo violin enters in its highest range — representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth, in a remarkably long extension of the text.
- Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea "miserere nobis" ("have mercy on us") that begins with the men's voices alone yields, eventually, to a bright D-major prayer "dona nobis pacem" ("grant us peace") in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is suddenly and dramatically interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn's Missa in tempore belli), but after repeated pleas of "miserere!", eventually recovers and brings itself to a stately conclusion.
The musical form of the Missa solemnis
is more akin to a symphony with choral accompaniment than a "traditional" choral Mass. The writing displays Beethoven's characteristic disregard for the performer and is in several places both technically and physically exacting, with many sudden changes of dynamic, metre and tempo. This is consistent throughout, starting with the opening Kyrie
where the syllables Ky-ri
are delivered either forte
or with sforzando
, but the final e
is piano. As noted above, the reprise of the Et vitam venturi
fugue is particularly taxing, being both subtly different from the previous statements of the theme and counter-theme, and delivered at around twice the speed.
The orchestral parts also include many demanding sections, including the violin solo in the Sanctus and some of the most demanding work in the repertoire for bassoon and contrabassoon.
The difficulty of the piece, and the requirement for a full orchestra including leader solo, mean that it is not often performed by the amateur and semi-professional choirs which produce the majority of oratorio performances.
Some critics have been troubled by the problem that, as Theodor Adorno
put it, "there is something peculiar about the Missa solemnis
." In many ways, it is an atypical work, even for Beethoven. Missing is the sustained exploration of themes
through development that is one of Beethoven's hallmarks. The massive fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo align it with the work of his late period—but his simultaneous interest in the theme and variations
form is more than absent. Instead, the Missa presents a continuous musical narrative, almost without repetition, particularly in the Gloria and Credo movements which last longer than any of the others. The style, Adorno has noted, is close to treatment of themes in imitation that one finds in the Flemish masters such as Josquin des Prez
and Johannes Ockeghem
, but it is unclear whether Beethoven was consciously imitating their techniques or whether this is simply a case of "convergent evolution
" to meet the peculiar demands of the mass text. Donald Francis Tovey
has connected Beethoven to the earlier tradition in a different way:
Not even Bach or Handel can show a greater sense of space and of sonority. There is no earlier choral writing that comes so near to recovering some of the lost secrets of the style of Palestrina. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual colour of every chord, every position, and every doubled third or discord.
Perhaps the best way to recognize the importance of the mass in Beethoven's work is to acknowledge its singularity, and to view its remarkable variety and forceful individuality as the reflection of Beethoven's own relationship with the divine.
Some have remarked that his treatment of the text—including the addition of a high "a," in the Miserere section of the Gloria, and the quick disposal of several lines of text in the Credo underneath the weight of the two other choral parts and orchestra—shows a willful indifference to the more dogmatic precepts of the church, while others see the forceful expression of the central movements as having a sincerity that could only be born of true belief.
Compared to other works of similar stature, the Missa solemnis is rarely performed. Its notoriously difficult choral parts make it a stumbling block for many orchestras who only have access to volunteer choirs. Limited performances of the work have made the work far less known than Beethoven's other large works.