Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Getting Inside Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

In the case of a large symphonic chorus, it is nothing short of amazing that 160 people with widely varying musical and vocal experience can bring to bear the skill, discipline, and commitment necessary to master a complex work such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

There’s so much more to this work than the notes on the page! The weight of history – not only the composer’s history, but the history of Western music and the Catholic Church, and yes, our own spiritual histories – must be assimilated as we work together week on week. As individuals and as an ensemble preparing this music together, we might consider several overarching concepts that can affect our understanding of this music and our ability to communicate it convincingly to our audiences: Time, Spirituality, and what I think of as Monumental Intimacy.

Time. As we prepare this music, can we remove ourselves from the here and now? Beethoven composed the Missa between 1819 and 1823; that’s 185 years away during which music, and our aural understanding, developed in ways that musicians and audiences of Beethoven's time could not have imagined. Can we listen from the perspective of Beethoven’s contemporaries, and not with our modern anything-goes ears? For example, if the opening contours and harmonies of the "Kyrie" remind us of Brahms, can we eradicate all thought of Brahms, and instead consider that to Beethoven’s audiences these passages would not have been warmly familiar, but daringly colorful? As mentioned in an earlier essay here, Beethoven pulled, pushed, and stretched the musical conventions of his time; we can appreciate his innovations and courage only if we can transport our aural imaginations to that earlier time, leaving behind our modern sensibilities.

Spirituality. What do we know about Beethoven’s spiritual self? How does this understanding influence our connection to the composer and our performance of his sacred music? We know that Beethoven did not attend church, yet there is ample evidence that he was a deeply spiritual man. He clearly invested considerable time and energy to create this monumental religious work, but unlike conventional Masses composed by many of his contemporaries, it was (and is) entirely unsuitable for use in worship. As we sing these ancient texts and hear Beethoven’s musical interpretation, how do we reconcile his faith with our own beliefs? Is it possible to offer the Missa Solemnis purely as a concert work? Or do we present it from Beethoven’s perspective, as a public (yet very personal) expression of his faith? (Not our faith, but his?) What about our audience? How many of them will come to these performances primarily to hear the music? Or primarily for the spiritual message? Or both? Do we consider the audience perspective during our preparation and performance? If a participating musician is a Christian, is performing the Missa Solemnis a spiritual experience? If a participating musician is a nonreligious musician, or is from a different faith tradition, how would that person approach this work and other Christian sacred music? (That’s a topic for another essay!)

Monumental Intimacy. The Missa Solemnis is enormous. Huge. Gargantuan. In your face. In the scale of its musical architecture and spiritual design, the Missa might well be called a musical and theological edifice, and, like a public house of worship, it is certainly big enough for everyone. Yet it is also an intimate and entirely personal expression of faith. This intimacy is evidenced not only in the quieter musical moments, but in Beethoven’s abandonment of conventional Mass forms and styles in favor of music that suited his own interpretation of the Mass texts. In this duality, the Missa may be understood as a musical and spiritual portrait of its composer, for Beethoven was possessed of a huge, in-your-face, unapologetic personality, even as he kept his most intimate feelings and religious beliefs in close reserve.

Beethoven offers intense challenges – musical, vocal, and spiritual – on every page and in every note of the Missa Solemnis. The journey to understanding this work is risky and fraught with peril, as is a climb to a high mountain peak. On the way, you will get tired. You might get hurt. You will undoubtedly get lost and have to find your way back to the path. You will feel utterly alone and wonder where everyone else has gone. You will experience bewilderment. But when you reach the top – oh, then you will understand. For the view from the top will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen! And it will seem all the more beautiful by your knowledge that only those who make the climb are privileged to enjoy the view.

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