"Missa solemnis" in D major, Op. 123

The prompt for the birth of one of Beethoven’s spectacular opuses, Missa solemnis, came from the composer’s student and patron, Archduke Rudolf, brother of the Austrian Emperor at the time, who commissioned the Triple Concerto and the Fifth Piano Concerto, to whom the composer owes his gratitude and appreciation. In 1819 Archduke Rudolf was nominated cardinal and made archbishop of Olomouc in Moravia. The ordination ceremony was scheduled for 9 March 1820. The idea of liturgical music, which LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN had worn out long before, found a fitting occasion in the events of the coronation. In a letter to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven announced: ‘On the day when the High Mass I have written will be performed at the ceremony solemnly performed for Your Majesty, it will be the most glorious day of my life, and God will so sanctify me that my humble talents will contribute to the praise of that solemn day’.

Despite his intentions, the composer was unable to complete the Solemn Mass by the date of the ceremony, but only three years later. The literature speculates that the difficult process of creating the work has its roots in the composer’s traumatic past: it begins with the ambitions and consequent harassment of a father seeking to commercialise his son’s talent, as in Mozart’s case; it passes through a complicated family life; the loss of his hearing; failed personal relationships; the guardianship over his nephew, etc.

In 1823 he decided not to send the score to his publishers but to make it available for performance. The first to respond was Prince Nikolai Galitzin, a benefactor and admirer of the composer, who organised the premiere in St Petersburg in March 1824. The only performance of the Missa Solemnis that Beethoven attended in his lifetime was the one in Vienna on 7 May that year, where only the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei movements were performed.

When composing, Beethoven had in mind a performance in church, which is why he introduced the organ into the orchestra, but he did not object to only parts of the mass being performed in concert. Three of the movements – Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei – were called by him “Three great hymns with solo and choral voices”.

When Beethoven finally decides to send the manuscript of the Solemn Mass to Archduke Rudolf, he confided to him, “There is no more sublime mission than to come closer to the Divine than other mortals, and through this contact to spread the divine rays of the Most High among the human race. /…/ My main aim during the composition of this grand liturgy was to awaken and constantly inspire religious feelings not only among the singers but also among the listeners.”

The nature of the composer’s religiosity has been much commented upon, and is not, according to opinion, identified with biblical faith. Beethoven expressed his position to his publisher Hertel that the genre of the mass should have a new stage incarnation. Genre transformations are a natural stylistic and temporal fact, but the quotation above indicates that while the Solemn Mass is not an orthodox-Christian work for sacred practice, it is an individual demonstration of saving faith in God and the sharing of that faith with listeners.

In addition to the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven had two earlier opuses of liturgical text (the 1803 Oratorio and the 1807 Mass do major) that interpreted spiritual matters with their worldly relevance. His idea of God is identified precisely with Christian values: with goodness, love, compassion, mercy, with the idea of an active life stance in the fight against evil.


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