The Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123 was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven from 1819 to 1823. The work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, archbishop of Olmutz, Beethoven's foremost patron as well as pupil and friend. The work was intended for performance at the ceremony of the archbishop’s installation, but it was not completed in time. It was first performed on 7 April 1824 in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of Beethoven's patron Prince Nikolai Galitzin; an incomplete performance was given in Vienna on 7 May 1824, when the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were conducted by the composer. The Ninth Symphony was also premiered at this concert. The Missa Solemnis is generally considered to be one of the composer's supreme achievements. Together with Bach's Mass in B minor, it is the most significant Mass setting of the common practice period. Written around the same time as his Ninth Symphony, it is Beethoven's second setting of the Mass, after his Mass in C, Op. 86.
Despite critical recognition as one of Beethoven's great works from the height of his composing career, the Missa Solemnis has not achieved the same level of popular attention that many of his symphonies and sonatas have enjoyed. A typical performance of the complete work runs 80 to 85 minutes. The difficulty of the piece combined with the requirements for a full orchestra, large chorus, and highly trained soloists, both vocal and instrumental, mean that it is not often performed by amateur or semi-professional ensembles.
Like most Masses, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is in five movements:
Kyrie: Perhaps the most traditional of the Mass movements, the Kyrie is in a traditional ABA' structure, with stately choral writing in the first movement section and more contrapuntal voice leading in the Christe, which also introduces the four vocal soloists.
Gloria: Quickly shifting textures and themes highlight each portion of the Gloria text, in a beginning to the movement that is almost encyclopedic in its exploration of 3/4 time. The movement ends with the first of the work's two massive fugues, on the text "In gloria Dei patris. Amen", leading into a recapitulation of the initial Gloria text and music.
Credo: One of the most remarkable movements to come from Beethoven's pen opens with a chord sequence that will be used again in the movement to effect modulations. The Credo, like the Gloria, is an often disorienting, mad rush through the text. The poignant modal harmonies for the "et incarnatus" yield to ever more expressive heights through the "crucifixus", and into a remarkable, a cappella setting of the "et resurrexit" that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the closing fugue on "et vitam venturi" that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire, when the subject returns at doubled tempo for a thrilling conclusion.
The form of the Credo is divided into four parts: (I) allegro ma non troppo through "descendit de coelis" in B-flat; (II) "Incarnatus est" through "Resurrexit" in D; (III) "Et ascendit" through the Credo recapitulation in F; (IV) Fugue and Coda "et vitam venturi saeculi, amen" in B-flat.
Sanctus: Up until the benedictus of the Sanctus, the Missa solemnis is of fairly normal classical proportions. But then, after an orchestral preludio, a solo violin enters in its highest range — representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth — and begins the Missa's most transcendently beautiful music, in a remarkably long extension of the text.
Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea "miserere nobis" ("have mercy on us") that begins with the men's voices alone in B minor yields, eventually, to a bright D-major prayer "dona nobis pacem" ("grant us peace") in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is suddenly and dramatically interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn's Missa in tempore belli), but after repeated pleas of "Miserere!", eventually recovers and brings itself to a stately conclusion.
In this famous portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, Beethoven can be seen working on the Missa Solemnis in D major.
The Mass is written for a quartet of vocal soloists, a substantial chorus, and the full Classical orchestra with the addition of three trombones and a contrabassoon, and each at times is used in virtuosic, textural, and melodic capacities. The writing displays Beethoven's characteristic disregard for the performer – in other words it is very difficult – in several places both technically and physically exacting, with many sudden changes of dynamic, meter and tempo. This is consistent throughout, starting with the opening Kyrie where the syllables “Ky-ri” are delivered either forte or with sforzando, but the final “e” is piano. As noted above, the reprise of the “Et vitam venturi” fugue is particularly taxing, being both subtly different from the previous statements of the theme and counter-theme, and delivered at around twice the speed. The orchestral parts also include many demanding sections, including the violin solo in the Sanctus and some of the most demanding work in the repertoire for bassoon and contrabassoon.
As we prepared the work, I became very interested in discovering the degree to which Beethoven held deep religious feelings. His profound trust in Nature had always been very clear, and intellectually he was certainly a major voice and conscience of the Enlightenment, dedicated to the values of Reason, but was there a deep religious ethic? Not really, although there was apparently in the 1810’s he had briefly sought solace from religion. But in 1820, the need to connect with, even have some dependency on a higher supernatural power became very clear. He undertook spiritual journeys via a number of sources – Eastern, Egyptian, Mediterranean, even some of the less orthodox Christian practices – about which he wrote extensively in his diaries. What was clear, however, was that he never subscribed to the precepts of orthodoxy – neither Protestant nor Catholic. In fact if Beethoven had guiding principles, they were “Humanity, God, and Nature.” Maynard Solomon, in his authoritative biography of Beethoven says that “Although we may be certain that Beethoven poured his deepest religious feelings into the Missa Solemnis, we may be equally sure that it was not deference to the Catholic Church that prompted the work.” In fact the work ends rather questioningly, and I have asked the orchestra and chorus to hear the lilting passages of the last section – the Agnus Dei – as echoes of the Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral” and the rather subdued ending as a reminder that there are always questions about our lives on Earth, right up to the end.
Notes largely taken from Wikipedia, with thoughts by Nick Armstrong.