Beethoven: Missa solemnis

Missa solemnis in D major, Opus 123

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent state, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He wrote the Missa solemnis between 1819 and 1823. The work was first performed in Saint Petersburg on April 6, 1824. The first North American performance was given at Steinway Hall, New York, under the direction of Dr. James Pech on May 2, 1872. The San Francisco Symphony first presented the work in January 1932 at the Tivoli Opera House. Hans Leschke conducted the San Francisco Municipal Chorus, and the soloists were Audrey Farncroft, Ruth Waterman Anderson, Allan Wilson, and Everett Foster. The most recent subscription performances were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in May 2013, with soloists soprano Laura Claycomb, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael Fabiano, and bass-baritone Shenyang, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The score calls for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, four-part chorus, and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock in these performances), and strings. These performanes also employ a boys choir. Performance time: about seventy minutes.

In late 1818, when he learned that his friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph would be made a cardinal and Archbishop of Olmütz (Olomouc), Moravia, Beethoven determined to compose a Mass for Rudolph’s installation. That was the immediate spur of the Missa solemnis, although Beethoven would not complete the work until about forty months after his self-imposed deadline. 

To no composition before or after the Missa solemnis did Beethoven give so much time—time for sketching, composing, scoring, and polishing, and before that for historical, intellectual, and spiritual preparation. Once before, Beethoven had taken on the Mass. That was in 1807, the year of the Fifth Symphony, and the occasion was a commission from Prince Nicholas Esterházy, who wanted the work for his wife’s name day. “I believe I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated,” Beethoven maintained. Esterházy’s puzzled response after the first performance presented the reverse of that coin, a puzzled and somewhat insulting, “My dear Beethoven, what have you done this time?” 

Beethoven had been brought up a Roman Catholic, but except to play music or listen to it, he had probably not entered a church since childhood. He was never an orthodox churchman, but he was a profoundly religious man, most so in his later years. 

What begins to be clear is that Beethoven in 1818-19 was ready and eager to compose a Mass and that the news of the Archduke’s prospects for Olmütz provided the occasion. The central issue was how to give musical utterance to a broad, rich welter of thoughts and feelings. When Beethoven began work on the Missa solemnis, he had been composing for something like thirty-seven years, more than twenty-five of them on the highest plane. His most recently completed work, the Hammerklavier Sonata, established him as the most advanced composer alive, but this was also the man who, in the summer of 1818, wrote himself a note on how to find the key to writing “true church music”: “Look through all the church chorales of the monks and also the strophes in the most correct translations and perfect prosody in Christian-Catholic psalms and hymns generally.” Ten years earlier he had written: “In the old church modes the devotion is divine. . . . May God permit me to express it some day.”

As early as 1810 Beethoven had tried to get hold of Bach’s still unpublished B minor Mass. He added to his curriculum the sacred music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, along with the Dodecachordon, a 1547 treatise on the church modes and counterpoint, and, from 1558, the Istituzioni armoniche, a book of theory, history, speculation, and criticism.

In sum, as Maynard Solomon puts it, feeling “the Classic tradition to be insufficient for the composition of a major [Mass] or for the expression of feelings of highly sublimated spirituality . . . he systematically and painstakingly set about mastering the musical vocabularies of religious music of earlier periods.” 

He begins with a D major chord, forte, for woodwinds, horns, strings, and organ. D major, the trumpets-and-drums key of Classical and Baroque music, is itself a quotation, a traditional formulation. At the same time, Beethoven took pride in making “ordinary” chords individual and unmistakable, and this rich and luminous D major chord is a vivid instance. The tempo direction is supplemented by something further for the conductor, the players, and the singers to reflect on, “Mit Andacht (devoutly, or with devotion). This is something new in Beethoven. 

The opening chord is twice repeated, articulating the rhythm of the word Kyrie. In 

few works are instruments so intimately drawn into the task of interpreting a text. When at last the singers enter, they simply make explicit what we already know. The orchestral chords become great choral invocations, solo voices take on the lines of the solo winds.

Beethoven had once written to Rudolph: “On Him alone I place my reliance and hope that in all my manifold miseries the All-Highest will not let me perish utterly.” His Kyrie eleison setting, with those solo voices so small and lonely, yet so fervent and confident, is a beautiful translation of that thought into music. 

The Kyrie text comprises only three different words, and a composer can do no more than write as aptly and as beautifully as possible. The text of the Gloria is broad, varied, and immensely rhetorical. Beethoven begins with a mighty orchestral uprush that symbolizes the celebrant raising his arms in joy; here, too, the voices, pronouncing the words, have but to echo what the orchestra has already sung. “Et in terra pax and “adoramus te bring the traditional hush; for the rest, through “glorificamus te,” the singers and players become ever more exultant, rhythm and harmony reinforcing the brilliant sound. A sudden change to a new pliant and lyrical music heralds the “Gratias agimus tibi,” which at “Domine Deus yields to the opening music. For “omnipotens Beethoven reserves his first fortissimo and the first blast of trombones. 

Traditionally the “Qui tollis is sung to slower music, and here Beethoven sets the words in a larghetto whose beats are sufficiently slow to allow for much internal rhythmic elaboration for the pleas of “miserere nobis. The music grows intense, the orchestra emits great shudders, and the soloists preface their “misereres” with unliturgical and poignantly human “o’s.” Beethoven’s ferociously emphatic fugue on “in gloria Dei Patris” unfolds at great breadth, more than anything in the Mass so far. The soloists add their voices to the assertion of God’s glory, the harmonies move with bewildering rapidity, the tempo increases. The “Amen has sounded, and Beethoven makes as though to wind up with his characteristically vehement cadences, when suddenly the tumult of “Gloria in excelsis Deo bursts out once more, with wilder rhythmic dislocations than ever. The final shout of “Gloria explodes into the spaces of the cathedral after the orchestra has finished—an amazing inspiration that came to Beethoven in his last revisions to the score.

The first chord of the Credo is mighty indeed; though it is muted in harmony and color after the blaze of the Gloria. Here, too, the orchestra speaks the text before the voices, and for Beethoven this text is not so much “credo as “credo, credo. This is also a text that offers much to illustrate. “Omnipotens is again the occasion for a fortissimo of special weight and glory, and Beethoven observes the traditional hush that distinguishes the invisible from the visible. Soon we hear what touches him most deeply: In the first moment of real let-up to the singing, a few instruments play a rising scale and introduce wondrously soft words of awe and gratitude, “qui propter nos homines and “propter nostram salute (“who for us and for our salvation”). The conclusion of the clause, “descendit de coelis”—“descended from heaven”—is grandly pronounced, the better to set off the marvel now to come. Beethoven makes a sudden shift of harmony and pace, and slowly, with all the distance and mystery lent by the old church modes, the tenor tells of the Incarnation. The other soloists continue the thought, and on the words “de Spiritu Sancto a single flute illuminates the texture with its weightless flutter, an image identified by one of the first reviewers of the Missa as depicting the Holy Ghost, a “heavenly messenger in the form of a dove.” The chorus reenters on an almost toneless murmur. Instantly we return to earth, that is, to fortissimo and the tenor’s triumphant “et homo factus est.

Swiftly Beethoven moves to the “Crucifixus. If this section is brief, “Et resurrexit goes by even more rapidly. Set a cappella and in that respect all but unique in the Missa, and also returning to modal harmony, it is placed in extraordinarily vivid relief. Beethoven makes magnificent announcement of His coming again with glory to judge the quick and the dead. 

Then comes the third section of the creed, the series of doctrinal clauses that begin with “Et in spiritum sanctum. These have not usually stimulated composers as have the sections concerning the first two persons of the Trinity. Beethoven’s setting has been much commented upon. He begins by reintroducing the “credo, credo phrase of which he made such impressive use at the beginning. What is remarkable, though, is that “credo, credo will not go away. Someone is always proclaiming it across the clauses about the genealogy of the Holy Ghost, the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, and Baptism. 

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum unites the voices in a splendid and climactic unison, after which Beethoven begins the words about the life of the world to come. As tradition dictates, “et vitam venture is a fugue, its subject here an expansion of the Credo motif. It is probably the most difficult fugue ever written for voices. Beethoven spins it out with a wondrous sense of timelessness. Like the Gloria fugue, it moves into a quicker tempo, but the end this time is a sublime and mysterious peace.

The Sanctus is an adagio and brings a new kind of sonority, the rich, dark one of an orchestra whose violas and cellos are divided, in which trumpets are held to their lowest notes, and from which flutes, oboes, and violins are absent. Again we hear choral murmuring, then the “Pleni sunt coeli bursts forth in a quick fugue. The accompaniment is weighty. “Osanna is a similar movement, still quicker and more brilliant.

Now comes the central moment of the Mass. The celebrant elevates the Host, and the Missal calls for the singing to cease so that the choir may join the congregation in adoration. Tradition has the organist play an interlude before the Benedictus. Beethoven actually composes such a bridge, but for a reduced orchestra, a sound at once glowing and covered.

The harmonic changes grow slower. Then a beam of brightest light penetrates the soft penumbra. It is the Real Presence, Christ upon the altar and in the host. In earthly terms, it is a chord, more than an octave higher than any we have heard since the end of the “Osanna,” for two flutes and a single violin. Step by step these gleaming sounds descend. As the brass and drums softly repeat the “Benedictus rhythm, the singing is held to chantlike repeated-note iterations of the words, while the violin, growing ever more ecstatic, carries the burden of the spacious discourse. 

After the radiance of this Benedictus, the Agnus Dei begins in the dark sounds of bassoons, horns, and low-register strings, and in adagio. Then, gently, comes the “Dona nobis pacem. Here Beethoven attaches another of his glosses in German to the score, marking this page “Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden (Plea for inner and outer peace). It is the prayer of a man who had lived much of his adult life in war. He was just into his twenties when the Napoleonic Wars began, forty-four at the time of Waterloo, and he remembered well the terrifying bombardment of Vienna in 1809. 

For a few moments the music proceeds in a polyphony only slightly restless; then there comes one of those interruptions so characteristic of the Missa solemnis, four bars for chorus a cappella, clearly an allusion to “And he shall reign for ever and ever” from the “Hallelujah!” chorus in Handel’s Messiah. Later the allusion becomes more explicit, virtually a quotation. The flow returns to its principal course, then the pleas of “pacem, pacem become more urgent, and suddenly the music ceases. Silence, distant drumming, unrest in the strings, far-off trumpet signals, appeals to the Lamb, a full fortissimo outcry for the soprano. The sounds of war have come near. Once again the music gets back on track with an extensive and developed presentation of the “Dona nobis pacem material. From there, Beethoven moves into an orchestral fugato, quick, intense, and incorporating rapid harmonic changes. Without warning, the trumpeting and drumming is upon us, the words of the chorus and solo soprano are compressed into anguished repetitions of “dona, dona and “dona pacem.

This war music recedes, and at last something like peace envelops the music. In the stillness comes a gentle rainfall of scales, pianissimo and staccato. The chorus sings one last “dona pacem to the Handelian phrase. And upon this mosaic, this often so private utterance in a public genre, this most intensely worked composition of his life, Beethoven sets a final radiant simplicity.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.


More About the Music

Recordings:  John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (Archiv)  |  Otto Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and Wiener Singverein (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Hilversum Chorus (Deutsche Grammohon Galleria)

Reading:  Beethoven, by Marnard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)

DVD:  See Beethoven’s Eroica, from the first series of Keeping Score, featuring Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony musicians (SFS Media) , and visit

(June 2015)