Beethoven's "Missa"-Perched Between the Baroque and the Romantic Neo-Baroque

I can affirm most wholeheartedly that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis absolutely succeeds outdoors on a balmy June evening, as proved last night by the Chicago Grant Park festival and its capable conductor, Carlos Kalmar. I’m too lazy to look it up, but was it not so long ago that outdoors summer festivals avoided pieces like the Missa? In any case, any and all times and places are right for this engrossing and highly accessible work; if you actually listen, this piece, dense and profound as it obviously is, can connect like nothing else. It is Beethoven’s greatest single achievement, even if sacred music isn’t Beethoven’s greatest or most characteristic genre (which are piano sonata and string quartet).

This work is indebted to the Baroque, and not just Bach, but nevertheless is fundamentally High Classical in conception; it forms a continuous narrative, as the Bach B minor Mass, which is a collection of sympathetic but heterogeneous pieces, does not. You couldn’t omit or transpose anything from Beethoven’s Mass and retain structural integrity, which is both dramatic and tonal. But one could excerpt a chorus or aria from the sacred works of Bach or Mozart with profit. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is a coincidence, or due primarily to biographical factors, that Mozart’s two greatest sacred works, the C minor Mass and Requiem, were left incomplete-there appears to be, in these awesomely beautiful works, an ultimate lack of total identity between style and content. Neither are the Baroque and earlier styles (Gregorian chant for instance) employed in the Missa felt as stylistic anachronisms except where intended to be felt as such by Beethoven. This seems to me to be an absolutely vital point, and one that cannot be made for Mozart or Schubert, or even Haydn.

Dramatically the Mass’s structure feels as if it were in two mammoth and complementary parts separated and articulated by the Credo, which looks both backward and forward. The Kyrie and Gloria easily are the sections most obviously reconcilable with Baroque antecedents, but nevertheless have an intrinsic momentum which is undoubtedly Classical, and contain some disconcerting touches, like the very first intonation of the word “kyrie” on a weak beat, or the simultaneous unfolding of the two parts of the fugal subject at the beginning of the “Christe eleison”, which one could take to be a reference to the dual nature of Christ, but which requires intense focus on the part of the listener to perceive adequately. This mass of fugal entries at this place is one of the great glories of the piece.

It is well known that the opening E-flat salvo in the overall B-flat tonality of the “Credo” inaugurates a massive plagal cadence over the course of the movement. I’d like to speculate further that the idea of a piece in D with subsidiary regions in two flats connects this piece to the Ninth Symphony, written at essentially the same time. Elegantly, the Mass has D major giving way to G minor in the achingly moving “Agnus Dei”, and the symphony has D minor giving way to B flat, as a major structural conceit. Consider it speculated!

I noticed that the “et incarnatus est” was sung by the tenor section rather than the soloist. Maybe I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to this detail in the past, because I was confused, since my score indicated solo. I had an opportunity to ask Maestro Kalmar about it afterwards, and he said that there is absolutely no doubt it should be chorus, that he called the Grand Poohbas at Henle edition in Munich who indicated that they always get that question, and that an errant copyist was responsible for the mistaken indication of “solo”. Mr. Kalmar further commented that the context made the sectional rendition clear. My wife chimed in that it ought to be sung by the chorus, because tenor soloist James Taylor’s clarion entrance on the concluding phrase “et homo factus est” (and was made man) was exceptionally dramatic. To this the Maestro enthusiastically agreed. It is true that the other soloists enter subsequent to the “incarnatus”, and that Christ was, corporally speaking, one man and not many, but whether or not it is politic to agree with Munich editors and fine conductors, it is always politic to agree with one’s wife. Actually, I have no idea what Beethoven wrote, so it was good to learn the truth of the matter from a pro who does know, who has done the necessary research. This is not a trivial point, it is one of the most important places in the score. In fact, one could say that the “Incarnatus” is the foundation of all Christianity. Maestro said my score must be old, not reflecting current research. I wonder how many other mistakes I accept as true…I have a lot of old scores!

I am indebted to Mr. Ray Frick, generous underwriter of the concert, for introducing me to the very fine soloists and Mr. Kalmar. I’m certainly appreciative of the opportunity. It’s amazing what one can learn.

And the very fine soloists? Erin Wall (soprano), Anita Krause (mezzo), James Taylor (tenor) and Nathan Berg (bass). The solo parts in Missa Solemnis are uncommonly challenging without being overtly virtuosic, and require exceptional musicality and sensitivity to ensemble concerns. All these soloists delivered. I should mention here that the Grant Park chorus, singing some exceptionally difficult music themselves, was flat-out great. Chorus director Christopher Bell took a well-deserved bow with his ensemble.

An interesting feature of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei is how few words there are and how much music. Beethoven has deflected the emotional weight of the mass to the final third of the text. This is consonant with Beethoven’s fundamentally humane and humanistic conception. “Lamb of God, forgive us our sins” and “Grant us Peace” are given the greatest attention of all lines in the mass. It is moving to think of Beethoven writing, “Grant us inner and outer peace” at the allegretto. Or is my score in error! It is too well known to mention here the ominous military music Beethoven places in the “dona nobis pacem” very near the end; will Beethoven’s not-so-subtle reminder, or warning, never cease to be relevant?

There are a great many fine sacred pieces from the Romantic era, this is conceded. But the absorption of Baroque methods anachronistically by such composers as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt are in a sense disappointing when one considers that Beethoven’s achievement was to remake sacred style wholly in his most advanced, personal, and au courant manner. Greatest Romantic composer of sacred music? Let’s call a spade a spade and nominate Hector Berlioz. There are moments in his Requiem and L’Enfance du Christ that recall with fierce immediacy the sincerity and personal committment on display in Beethoven’s finest work.