Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in D major is one of the towering masterpieces of the choral repertoire and despite being written at a time when just about everything had gone wrong with his life, Beethoven was still able to write on the manuscript: “To my God who has never deserted me.” He’d lost his hearing, his faithful beloved, and his nephew had deserted him, but still he was able to write one of the greatest pieces of religious music ever penned. The composition of the great mass occupied Beethoven from 1818 to 1823, taking it a good four years past the occasion for which it was composed, the installation of the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, his patron, pupil, and friend, as Archbishop of Olmutz in what is now the Czech Republic. The structure of the mass reflects the composer’s reverence for the Catholic mass. Divided into five movements – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei – each movement is designed as a meditation on faith, redemption, and the human condition. The Kyrie, which opens the work, is a plea for mercy and forgiveness. Beethoven’s setting is characterised by its beautiful melodies, intricate counterpoint, and dramatic shifts in dynamics, evoking a sense of awe and reverence. The Gloria, which follows, is a jubilant proclamation of praise. Here the choir is given full rein and there are triumphant brass fanfares designed to display celestial splendour. Next the Credo. This is the longest and most expansive movement and could be called the heart of the work. Here, Beethoven embarks on an exploration of faith, weaving together intricate polyphony, expansive choral fugues, and poignant solo passages. Questions of belief, doubt and the mysteries of existence are all introduced in this movement. The Sanctus is a hymn of praise and exaltation, and Beethoven’s orchestration is almost otherworldly. He sets out to paint a picture of heavenly serenity. Next follows a prayer for peace and reconciliation in the Agnus Dei. This is the most moving part of the entire work and it is clear that Beethoven was thinking here about divine grace and perhaps whether he deserved it. The Missa Solemnis was one of only three overtly religious works that Beethoven composed, and he considered it his greatest work. Throughout the whole mass, Beethoven’s music is marked by deep emotion and spiritual fervour, while being noted for its often-unusual orchestration. But just how original was the style? Musicologists over the years have been unable to agree. The 19th century English music analyst Sir Donald Tovey had this to say about the work: “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.” However, the 20th century British musicologist Michael Spizer takes a different view: “Gregorian melodies, of course, continued to be used in the Mass throughout the eighteenth century, but by Beethoven’s time they were relatively rare, especially in orchestral Masses. The one composer who still used them extensively was Michael Haydn. I have little doubt that Beethoven knew such works of Michael Haydn, at that time the most popular composer of sacred music in Austria.” Be all that as it may, nothing can diminish the power and beauty of this monumental work. As an exploration of faith, doubt, hope and humanity’s relationship with the divine it has no equal.

By Michael Morton-Evans

Join Anne-Louise Luccarini for Sunday Special: Beethoven Missa Solemnis in D major this Sunday 7 April at 3pm or listen on demand!