Beethoven at the End: the Missa Solemnis

Despite having a lot on my mind that I think might be blog-worthy, I have hardly posted anything here or via my other, very sporadic blogging efforts. There are two reasons for this: First, I am crazy-busy. I am working two jobs, and my boys, despite their teenage years, have been taking more of my time than I thought possible.

The other reason is, of course,  a state of depression about social media. I’ll go into that another time. But, while trying to cure my blues with music, which I have been doing since the Eisenhower Adminstration, I ran across the following, which I’ve also posted to Facebook:

Herbert Blomstedt gives a wonderful talk at the link below about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The associated performance is superb and well worth the cost of a single viewing or even a subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s excellent streaming service, Digital Concert Hall.

Beethoven’s highly unusual setting of the Ordinary of the Mass is among his last works, and the one he regarded as his greatest. It is not a Mass suitable for church. It is far too outsized to be part of any actual Liturgy. It represents, instead, Beethoven’s own personal expression of faith and inner spirituality. And, despite its late-Beethovenian self-involvement, it is a work that in deep ways hearkens back to the 16th century and the techniques of the great Franco-Flemish and Italian polyphonic composers. There is hardly any thematic development in the way late Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven himself had perfected and extended, and which anyone who knows this style would expect. Beethoven’s treatment of his thematic material in the Missa Solemnis has more in common with Josquin than Haydn, or certainly the Beethoven of the Nine Symphonies. Beethoven takes a step away from his own world and his own ego and makes a deep bow toward composers such as Palestrina, who in the Renaissance had laid the foundations upon which Beethoven was attempting to erect his masterpiece.

At the same time, this music is “difficult” and, in that sense, forward-looking. Beethoven’s harmonic language, his large orchestra and chorus, and the technical demands on all the musicians, especially the singers, are harbingers of the later 19th century. Beethoven seems to have intended this work to last, and for it to stand, like his late quartets, somehow outside of time.

Blomstedt makes the point that every note here is “charged with meaning.” This is an extremely important notion that Blomstedt repeats and extends it to the entire realm of “classical” music. The difference between the art music of our Western Civilization (if I may use such a term without irony) and other music we hear every day, is that each note of classical, or “art” music (the word I prefer) is, or ought to be, charged with meaning. And there are very few pieces of music so charged with layers of meaning as the Missa Solemnis. It is long and difficult, but there is little else in Beethoven, save his last string quartets, that attempts such transcendence. Whether he achieves it is a hard question, to which everyone who hears this piece will know there is no easy answer.

The entire concert, including the trailer and Blomstedt’s interview, is at the following link:

http://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/2585

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4 thoughts on “Beethoven at the End: the Missa Solemnis”

  1. I was able to view the trailer but apparently have to be a subscriber to view the entire piece. But I will find it on CD. I listen to Mozart’s Requiem on my MP3 almost every morning on my walk and never tire of it. Not as familiar with the Beethoven mass. Thank you for the source! Always looking for great performances/recordings!

  2. My favorite Beethoven work is his violin concerto, especially played by David Oistrakh.

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