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These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Jun 3, 2015

Thoughts on Missa solemnis

by Michael Tilson Thomas


Beethoven’s most challenging piece remains Missa solemnis. It can loom like a forbidding monolith over performer and audience alike. This is a pity because Beethoven considered it one of his supreme creations—his spiritual guidebook on which he worked for more than four years (1819-23).


Beethoven’s first intention was to write music for the Mass celebrating the investiture of Archduke Rudolph, his patron and sometime pupil, as a Prince of the Church. Beethoven had a great sense of occasion and intended the piece to be a spectacle of music rivaling, even surpassing, the great choral pieces of Handel and Haydn.


Missa solemnis follows the order of the Mass and pursues many other objectives. It illuminates and meditates on the text by repeating and recombining it many times. Each repetition expresses a new aspect of Beethoven’s understanding of the words. These repetitions create architectural zones that allow him to display the power of the large forms he was perfecting. For me, the piece suggests a visit to a cathedral. As in a cathedral, different chapels are dedicated to different spiritual territories.  Some are majestic, some intimate, some symphonic or even operatic.


The piece is written largely in counterpoint. Beethoven wanted to show his mastery of this ancient art. Sometimes he makes reference to styles of music written hundreds of years earlier by composers such as Schütz, Palestrina, and Lassus, before launching into his own daring inventions.


Above all, Missa solemnis offered Beethoven the opportunity to explore and reflect on the nature of time itself, on the contrast between the fleeting time of human life and the vastness of divine time.


So why, with all these amazing things happening, can the piece seem impenetrable? Like many ambitious works written for large forces it can strangle on its own complexity and majesty. With so many people doing so many things at the same time and place, it can be difficult to follow the music’s many strands.


The mission of this performance is to create more space around the music allowing us to better follow the streams of Beethoven’s thought.


Here are some ways we are doing this:

  • The vocal music has been assigned to different groups. There are three choruses: a large one of some ninety singers for the majestic symphonic music; a chamber choir of twenty for the more delicate moments; a boys choir to sing in the styles of the archaic music the piece evokes and to “highlight” moments of joyousness and innocence.
  • There are two sets of soloists to accomplish the same purposes.
  • The positions of the singers and of members of the orchestra change according to changes in their musical relationship.
  • Lighting is used to suggest underlying moods.
  • Video is used to create environments made from the words themselves and to suggest something of the design of the two fugues in the Gloria and Credo.

As I’ve thought about the piece, images and associations have come to mind. What follows are some of the thoughts underlying this production.


KYRIE. A burst of light reveals the interior of a cathedral. Its grandeur is at first startling but a gentle anthem invites the soloists, the chorus, and listeners to gather for the ceremony. Words rise above them like incense. The “Christe” introduces an archaic and contemplative mood as the soloists’ lines entwine. The “Kyrie” returns. leaving us in meditative stillness.


GLORIA. All at once we are in a huge joyous scene. Waves of ecstatic words stream down on us in the manner of Bernini or Tiepolo. The sound of boys’ voices adds a cherubic edge to the gleeful noise that alternates with tender appeals for peace on earth. Soloists and choruses both invite and challenge one another.


The soloists lead us into a new calm area. Their voices float to us from chapels built of the words they sing, evoking the almighty’s potential to grant redemption, mercy, and acceptance as well as his awesome power to rule and judge. Together with the chorus, they wander through the words, exploring their many meanings that become more personal and painful.


A rallying fanfare brings us back to the spirit of the joyous beginning and prepares us for a massive fugue on the text “. . . the glory of God the father. Amen.” In this fugue Beethoven seeks to equal or even surpass Handel.


It’s like Messiah on steroids. Beethoven builds a kind of musical Rubik’s cube that pushes the limits of the chorus and challenges our abilities as listeners to follow how his amazing mind wants to reveal ever more. After a time, the composer seems to sense we might need a break. He momentarily winds the fugue down and brings back the soloists in a kind of virtuoso competition. The music gets wilder and faster until it shifts to a hyper speed version of the Gloria’s opening and shortly thereafter, one of the most abrupt and startling endings in the entire choral repertory.


CREDO. This movement is one of Beethoven’s greatest creations. He takes up the challenge of the Credo’s all-too-many words, creating from them a symphonic spectacle. It begins with a march that gets its energy from the repetition of the phrase “Credo! Credo!” (“I believe! I believe!”) There follows a passing parade of articles of faith: one God, Jesus Christ, only son of God, light of lights, etc.


Notice how an ecstatic element begins to come into the piece as Beethoven punctuates the text with a recurring emotional stammer on the word “et” (“and”), as in “and from the father born.” The choir takes a short break and gives quiet thanks among themselves for all that God has done for mankind’s salvation. With the words “He descended from heaven,” we literally fall into the next major section.


The words of the text until now are fashioned into a kind of frame within which we experience scenes from Christ’s life. Beethoven sets the words “et incarnatus est” (“and was incarnated by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary”) in a way that recalls the style of the early Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and the majesty of Venice’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral. Our performance gives this music to boys’ and men’s voices. A solo flute adds a shimmering suggestion of the Holy Spirit. 


Each new event in Christ’s life is presented in a different style—some sacred, some quite operatic. Christ’s crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, his death and burial are made into one scene of anguish and exhaustion. With his death time stops.


The chorus’s brief and joyous announcement of the resurrection propels us into a noisy bustle of instruments and voices depicting his ascent into heaven, proclaiming his reign that will never end. And now, the story is ended. The text now returns to the doctrines of the faith.


Just as in a symphony’s recapitulation, the Credo begins anew. But this time something different is happening. Half of the chorus majestically proclaims “Credo,” while the other half charges through all the remaining words at breakneck speed. The time slippage resolves itself in a mighty unison rushing forwards on the words “and I await, I await the resurrection of the dead. And the eternal life of the world to come. Amen.”


And now Beethoven does something extraordinary. He writes music to describe what it might be like to experience eternal life. It is in the form of a double fugue. The first theme sets the words “et vitam venturi” (“and the life to come”). They are broken down into six halting syllables; little puffs of sound with silences between them and leading to the word “forever” (“saeculi”), which trails wispily behind them. Imagine the phrase in skywriting and you’ll get the idea. (et - vi - tam - ven - tu - ri - saeculi, amen). At the same time, the word “amen” itself is presented as another theme of two flowing streams. The music seems to emerge from the far distance and spiral its way towards us in an infinite time scale. It’s a huge intellectual design and at the same time it powerfully depicts the range of human emotions.


At the height of its power it boldly steps up the tempo to the absolute limit of what is possible for humans to sing. The joy of the repeating phrase, “Eternal life to come! Eternal life to come!” somehow makes it happen. It arrives at a majestic climax.


Any other composer would have ended the piece here. But, Beethoven sets off on new meditation on the nature of time itself. The soloists gracefully float “amens” into space as the chorus, one syllable at a time, repeats the familiar words, which have now become a mantra. Then there is nothing left but “amens” getting slower and slower as the orchestra gradually gets faster and faster. As the very last bar fades out the trombones quietly play the six halting notes that symbolize the “e - ter - nal life to come.”


SANCTUS. The Sanctus again evokes the sounds of composers of the sixteenth century such as Lassus and Palestrina. They are in brooding contrast to the blazing extrovert style of Beethoven’s settings. A very mysterious Praeludium gives us some quiet time to prepare for the Benedictus.


The Benedictus begins with a radiant violin solo. The beautiful melody is the center of the movement. Interestingly, only the violin plays the tune in its entirety. The soloists come in and out with parts of it, forming duets and trios among themselves but ultimately reconfirming their relationship with the violin. They give an elegant dance-like shape to the flow of the music. The simple text “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” allows Beethoven to write music of great humility and thankfulness—spiritual qualities that were deeply important to him.


AGNUS DEI. The opening bars of the Agnus Dei return to the tragic mood of the music that in the Credo described the crucifixion. The difference is that now the music is soloistic, in fact operatic. Accompanied by traditionally scored funeral music, each soloist, like witnesses at the foot of the cross, has the chance to attest to their ever deeper feelings of sorrow and appeal for mercy.


But somehow a hopeful turning point is reached and, in a moment Beethoven asked to be a search for inner and outer freedom, treble voices ask for peace and lead us into what is essentially the symphonically shaped finale of the whole work, the “Dona nobis pacem.”


The music flows in easy waves, occasionally uniting in moments of contemplation; last chances to reflect and thankfully remember the journey we have taken. By contrast, offstage brass and percussion and soloists issue increasingly dramatic calls to arms in the cause of the lamb of God before returning to the gentle flow of the way toward peace that leads to a country-like dance.


And then a classic Beethoven surprise. Just when we expect the piece to end we get instead a frenetic orchestral Presto. Its crazy energy brings us again to undisguised battle music; the ultimate call to arms.


The powerful waves of peace return and again transform into a country dance, swingingly played by the orchestra under the chorus’s all out cries for “Peace, Peace, Peace!”


And then it’s time to go. Our visit to the cathedral is over. There will be no grand symphonic ending. It’s closing time. All visitors must take their leave. On our way out, we may stop now and then for one last souvenir photo and one last appeal for peace. The orchestra makes a few perfunctory final gestures and we are at the end.


This is the moment the whole piece has been about—the moment when having completed our spiritual journey with Beethoven we return to our “real lives” and begin to assess what illumination it may have brought us.


This project began with the creation of a document; a kind of formal analysisIspreadsheet considering text, forces, phrase shape, harmony, recurring motives, etc. All of these elements were charted in a way that allows them to be located both by bar number and by time code. The document has enabled all members of the production team to talk the same language and to develop their thoughts together.


I want to express my great appreciation to all the members of the production team whose different creative gifts have contributed to the shape of this performance. It is a challenge to work on a piece that has no story, yet is about so much. Each has added their personal vision to the emerging whole.