Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Year's Music: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

Continuing my year-long listening to sacred or spiritual music... I've been listening to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (Mass in D major, Op. 123), a piece that I used to enjoy on a Eurodisc LP set, with Kurt Masur directing the Gewandshausorchester Leipzig, and Anna Tomova and Peter Schreier among the soloists. But I haven't listened to the piece for quite a while.

As I've read about the work, it is filled with changes of tempo and dynamic, a long musical narrative without Beethoven's characteristic development of themes. I found an interesting article that discusses the mass and its history and odd qualities: As the author Peter Gutmann indicates, it is a difficult work to perform, not just because of the size of musical forces (similar to the Ninth Symphony, composed during the same period), and although a work worthy of this peak period of Beethoven's abilities, it is heard much less often than other Beethoven compositions.

It is also intriguing as a religious work. Comparing it to Bach's B-minor Mass, which was not yet published during Beethoven's lifetime, Gutmann writes, "If Bach’s is an affirmation of faith, Beethoven’s is the first major religious work to openly question it, and thus paves the way toward our modern artistic attitudes. In addition, Beethoven’s covers a far wider range of expression in order to plumb the depths of human experience, and shares with his other late works a 'stream of consciousness' structure that manages to convincingly meld disparate elements into an integrated and challenging whole. As William Mann noted, Beethoven 'wanted his audience to notice the knots in the wood and the hammer blows in the beaten metal.' Mann further notes that this intentional roughness is not just a personal fluke but is historically valid, as it stems from Beethoven’s study of older precedent harking back to the time of Palestrina before harmony and rhythms became so standardized. In any event, the Missa Solemnis was the end of the line, the last full-scale Mass by a major composer. (While Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Britten and others would produce equally imposing Masses, they were all requiems, and thus entail a far different religious attitude.)"

Here is the mass, with Sir Colin Davis conducting:


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