|Founder: Len Mullenger||
Classical Editor in Chief: Rob Barnett
ON a rough computation Beethoven’s vocal works amount to close on one hundred songs, one hundred and sixty-four settings of folksongs, forty canons, five cantatas, one oratorio, two masses, and some miscellaneous pieces for chorus or smaller vocal ensemble. Of all these only a few songs and the great Missa Solemnis remain in use. To confine this chapter to the survivals, displaying them under the spectacular aspect of the scrap of paper, the billiard ball and the cannon ball which a famous variety artist used to juggle in the air simultaneously, would be to present Beethoven’s vocal works in a misleading way. For though Beethoven was no virtuoso with vocal music, his works in that medium possessed a precious quality that made them vital even while it rendered them vulnerable. Wagner seized on it when he said that, apart from sonata form, ‘the other forms, particularly the mixed ones of vocal music, he only touched upon in passing, as if by way of experiment, despite the most extraordinary achievements in them.’ (My italics - not Wagner’s.) Experiment. In that word is a key to the songs, the cantatas, the oratorio, the masses, and a clue to the subconscious discontent which I think Beethoven experienced when dealing with voices; discontent with the limitations of the human voice; discontent with existing conventions of word setting, vocal formulae, singers’ demands; discontent with himself for the intractability of his choral writing. To match his work against Handel’s sweeping power and infallible directness made him very humble. Schulz, who visited Beethoven in 1823, records:
I cannot describe to you with what pathos and, I am inclined to say, with what sublimity of language he spoke of The Messiah ... Every one of us was moved when he said: ‘I would uncover my head and kneel down at his (Handel’s) tomb.’
At that time Beethoven had but just emerged from his four years’ life and death struggle in writing the Missa Solemnis. Handel, his model, had composed The Messiah in less than a month.
In song writing Beethoven had no great models. His own works are the bridge between the ingenuous songlets of the eighteenth century, written for domestic performance, and the exquisite Lieder of Franz Schubert. At the outset Beethoven relied largely on instinct. Indeed, looking at his songs composed during the Bonn period, there are moments when I wish he had never studied under Salieri. The jolly bass arias with orchestra (1790), Prüfung des Küssens and Mit Mädeln sich vertragen, have a youthful sing-yourself zest that is most attractive, and the simplicity and pathos of Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (1792) still go straight to the heart. It is true many of the early songs show weak spots in the workmanship and even a vein of sentimentality, but they have lyric impulse and that young man’s freshness which can never be recaptured in mature composition. With Beethoven it vanished - so far as his songs were concerned - under the ministrations of Haydn and Salieri in Vienna. Haydn simply confirmed Beethoven in the convention of doubling the vocal line with the top part in the accompaniment, a bad habit that, under guise of supporting the voice, trammelled it, and Salieri led him back to Italian models which, excellent in themselves, were alien to Beethoven’s genius. I must honestly admit, however, that Adelaide (1795), the most famous of these Italianate songs, is really most beautiful and has the genuine Beethoven passion breaking through its formal mould in The lovely and ever-new phrases to which the lover reiterates the name of Adelaide. The style is pure bel canto. Few singers now possess the method, and the song is seldom sung.
The great dramatic scena for soprano and orchestra, Ah, perfido! spergiuro (1796), the arietta, In questa tomba (1807) and the six sacred songs to poems by Gellert (1803), which include the impressive Vom Tode and Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur (foreshadowing Schubert), are all remarkable, but nowadays they are rather avoided in England, because they demand the reserves of physical power associated with the Central European types of voice.
To examine Beethoven’s songs of his middle period is to see how he wavered between the past and that magic new world of the German Lied whose coming he sensed, but which he never saw clearly till some of Schubert’s songs were put into his hands on his deathbed. So, at times turning towards the past, Beethoven over-rode the verbal quantities in his songs as ruthlessly as any opera composer of the mid-eighteenth century. At others, gazing into the future, he showed himself exquisitely sensitive to the inflexions of the poems set. So too with his accompaniments. Some are non-contributive, and express only the harmonies implied in the melody; others stand in a living partnership with the voice; others are hybrids. Nearly all the songs bear the marks of a transition period. With one notable exception Schubert learnt far less from Beethoven the song-writer than from Beethoven the symphonist.
That exception was the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98, which Beethoven composed in 1816 to six poems by Jeitteles. So far as is known Beethoven originated the form - Liederkreis, as he called it - and his solitary example is still considered the most perfect, though Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe contain songs which are individually greater. The poems of the Ferne Geliebte express the wistful longing and loneliness of the lover as he sits upon a little hill, feeling his heart drawn into the distance towards the loved one.
Beethoven has set the poignant little poems to music of a tenderness and simplicity that conceal the consummate art with which he links song to song, and finally completes his circle by a long coda made from the material of the first song, now greatly intensified in emotion. The changes of key, tempo and rhythm are so subtle, and the touches of expression and word painting in the accompaniment give such an intimate sight of Beethoven’s heart, that I doubt whether any performance, however good, could produce quite the same exquisite impression as a perusal of the score. Take such a song as No. 2, which enters poised on the least defined position of the common chord (technically known as the 6/4), and hangs there more or less for bars on a dominant pedal note as the lover looks at the distant blue mountains. Then when his thoughts pass to the deep peace of the valley enfolding the loved one with whom he longs to be, the music modulates to C major and floats in an almost clairvoyant quiet upon the pedal note G, on which the voice monotones the words very softly. Or take Beethoven’s tiny picture in the accompaniment of No. 3 at the words ‘ Und du, Bachlein, klein und schmal’ (And thou, brooklet, narrow and small), where one sees his wealth of affection for the little stream he had already painted in the Pastoral Symphony. Or look at such a passage as the opening of No. 4, where by the simplest means Beethoven gives the very feeling of clouds sailing high in the blue. Could any singer or pianist convey these impressions with Beethoven’s reticence and clarity? Some sonnets, we arc told, are so beautiful that they should be heard by the inner ear only as the eye reads them silently. Beethoven’s Ferne Geliebte has that inexplicable loveliness. It has, too, Beethoven’s strange secrecy. Though, like the lover in Robert Bridges’s poem of praise to the gentle maid and tender lover, Beethoven seems to say:
So in my song I bind them
For all to find them.
yet in reality he never lets us know the woman who inspired his greatest songs. He dedicated his Liederkreis to Prince Joseph von Lobkowitz!
Beethoven’s folksong settings were begun at the request of the Scotch publisher Thomson, who had already enlisted Pleyel, Kozeluch and Haydn in the enterprise. Since it was profitable for all concerned, the number of Scotch, Welsh and Irish tunes thus provided with piano accompaniment and violin and cello parts ad libitum rose to a high total. Beethoven got so bitten with the work that he extended his attentions to Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Russian folksongs, these exotics being published by Schlesinger, the cautious Thomson refusing to have anything to do with them. Apart from the fundamental error of forcing modal tunes into diatonic harmonies - a crime which nowadays makes the fur of folksong experts rise fiercely - many of Beethoven’s arrangements are not unattractive, while some contain really fine work.
Haydn had been a great hand at canonic writing, so it is possible Beethoven adopted from him the habit of throwing off short canons on special occasions. Some were for ceremonial and academic purposes; others were of social or convivial kind. Once he obviously had doubts next day whether he had written sense overnight. The words of the canons are an index of what thoughts happened to be uppermost in his mind. Here are some samples: Das Schöne zu ded Guten (1823 and 1825); Ars longa, vita brevis (18I6 and 1825); Gedenkt heute an Baden (1823); Hol Euch der Teufel! B’hü’t Euch Gott! (1819). The workmanship is always firm, betraying the Beethoven touch, and though I do not think his canons equal Haydn’s in distinction, they served excellent purposes, one of which was to keep his counterpoint well oiled. The punning example on the next page belongs to the sombre year 1825. Beethoven wrote it for Dr. Braunhofer, who had attended him through a serious illness.
Beethoven’s cantatas began on a grandiose scale: they ended by being little more than choral songs. The Cantata on the Death of Joseph II and its companion piece on the accession of Leopold II to the imperial throne, both composed in 1790, were designed for special occasions which fortunately fired the young man’s imagination. Brahms declared the Joseph Cantata to be ‘Beethoven through and through,’ and Beethoven thought well enough of it to adopt a movement for Fidelio, as described in my previous chapter. The perception of choral and orchestral possibilities shown by Beethoven at twenty was remarkable. The opening chorus of the Joseph Cantata, with its weeping phrases in the woodwind of the orchestra, the antiphonal effects between chorus and orchestra where the voices enter ejaculating the word ‘Tod,’ the sudden rise to a fortissimo outburst, are wonderful instances of Beethoven’s emotional power even when very young. The massive final chorus of the Leopold Cantata deserves consideration for the bearing it has on the finale of Beethoven’s ninth Symphony.
Whether the Joseph and Leopold Cantatas were ever performed is an open question, with a trend towards a negative answer. Years later, in 1814, Beethoven’s occasional cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick was performed in Vienna before an audience of sovereigns and princes assembled to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat - an audience almost unparalleled in social brilliance. It is symbolic that the music should have had no lasting value. Bekker cautiously says that without being actually inferior the cantata offers no new material to the critic. Dr. Walker roundly calls it an inferior work. The Lobkowitz Cantata (1816) is one only in name. Actually it is a short greeting piece, where a soprano solo in praise of the prince is punctuated by outbursts of harmonic support from a second soprano and two basses, above an accompaniment written for piano. Drawing-room music.
The cantata Meerestille und glückliche fahrt is quite another affair. Composed in 1815 for four-part chorus and orchestra, Beethoven linked together in it a couple of poems by Goethe, because, as he told the poet when sending him the dedication: ‘Both, on account of the contrast which they offer, seem to me most fitting to be expressed musically. And how thankful I should be to know whether my harmonies are in unison with yours.’ Goethe, presumably ‘puffed up with majestick pride,’ never replied. Beethoven’s Meerestille is a lovely little thing, almost a first-class work. If its ‘cadences’ have dated somewhat, their dominant-tonic familiarity is compensated by the imaginative treatment of the voices and the hypnotic long pianissimo of the opening where Beethoven literally makes us see the glassy ocean and then feel its becalmed horror by unleashing the four voices into a wide fortissimo chord that spreads to the immensity of circling horizon at the words ‘In der ungeheuern Weite.’
Beethoven’s word-painting should be noted all through the cantata.
Among Beethoven’s other short vocal works the Elegischer Gesang written in memory of Baroness Pasqualati is simple and touching. Bekker points out its kinship with the slow movement of The great B flat major Trio, Op. 97. The four settings of Mathisson’s Opferlied, done at various times, prove, as do some other poems which Beethoven set and reset, that in vocal music his instinct was often dissatisfied with what his intellect accomplished. The Monk’s Song from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1817), the Bundeslied and other small things are unimportant.
The oratorio and two masses, on the contrary, are precious records wherein may be read not only the changes of Beethoven’s technique but the growth of his religious thought.
Christus am Olberge, the oratorio, was composed somewhere along the years 1799-1801. At any rate the evidence supports those dates rather than Beethoven’s self-justifying statement in 1811 that the Christus had been hurriedly composed in a fortnight. The text was nominally founded on the New Testament narrative of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and partly invented by the poet Franz Xaver Huber, with whom Beethoven constantly talked it over. The two evolved a work which in its illusionless secularism was a reflection of the French Revolutionary attitude towards religion. Beethoven always approached a hero with readiness and admiration. But here, one cannot help feeling, Christ was less real to him than, say, Prometheus, and that the Christ spirit was hidden from him by the material images and gorgeous ceremonial which had prevailed in Bonn and old Vienna. A good deal of baroque and rococo certainly got into the music. There was also a good deal of the theatre. Beethoven intended to be ‘modern.’ As often happens where modernism is deliberately adopted, the work had a striking success at the time, but is now démodé and too comic to perform. Yet portions have some nobility.
The orchestral introduction in E flat minor is the finest thing in the whole. Beethoven used it to create a clairvoyant vision of the dark garden of Gethsemane and Christ praying in agony. Apart from the intrinsic beauty of the music, it is valuable as an early indication of Beethoven’s feelings about certain keys, for he employed the muffled darkness of E flat minor, a key he seldom used, and modulated to B major - a transition he repeated long after with almost supernatural effect in the C sharp minor string Quartet. The introduction leads to a striking recitative for Christ, followed by an aria in C minor (for Beethoven the key of Fate) in which Christ prays that the cup may be taken away from Him. The treatment is tolerable, though operatic, but from the moment the Seraph, very baroque, caracoles on to the scene (with a recitative and aria written for a voice I have heard called ‘a high caricatura soprano’), it is no longer possible to retain reverent sympathy for the oratorio. For one thing Beethoven employs the chord of the diminished seventh with melodramatic, almost sentimental frequency and the bits of word-painting are naive - as for example the quivering demi-semiquaver figure where the Seraph palpitates with fear in No. 8. In the trio between the Seraph, Christ and Peter there is a forecast of Fidelio. The fugal entries of the chorus where the soldiers seize Christ sound as if Beethoven, before he wrote it, had studied Handel’s fugue in The Messiah, ‘He trusted in God that He would deliver Him.’ The final chorus is undeniably rather imposing. Beethoven is said to have thought of composing a companion oratorio, The Redeemer’s Journey into Hell. It was like him to wish to follow into the unseen, but he was not yet ready for such a tremendous metaphysical experience and he wisely left the oratorio unwritten.
The Mass in C major, composed in 1807 at the request of Prince Esterhazy and designed for normal liturgical use, bears the imprint of Catholic custom, but is nevertheless a direct approach by Beethoven to the words set.
It shows how far he had travelled as man and musician since 1800. His creative powers had matured - he was at work on the C minor Symphony - and his spiritual understanding had quickened. Where his honesty had once betrayed him into the religious crudities of the Mount of Olives, that same honesty now led him to study the text of the Mass free from any dogmatic or ecclesiastical intermediation between himself and his Maker. Given such a mind as Beethoven’s, the results were bound to be remarkable. ‘I do not like to say anything about my Mass or myself: he wrote to Breitkopf, ‘but I believe I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated.’ He was perfectly right. Looking at his Mass today, we can see that the familiar words had become translucent for him to the truths behind. His setting followed the words and painted their ideas with extraordinary fidelity. At the same time he strove for a musical design that should evolve logically, without depending on the verbal clauses to make it intelligible. The Mass, in fact, was to be as self-sufficing as a symphony or sonata. It was planned on a noble scale for a quartet of solo singers, chorus and full orchestra - a decision justified by the ample resources of the Esterhazy musical establishment. Unfortunately there is reason to believe the rehearsals were grossly inadequate, so when the Mass was performed on 13th September 1807 it was a fiasco. ‘But my dear Beethoven, what is this you have done now?’ quizzed Prince Esterhazy. Hummel, standing by, smiled. The Esterhazy family taste in masses was distinctly ‘tuney.’ But Beethoven believed the smile had been directed at himself. It hurt atrociously.
The cold-shouldering of the Mass continued. When Beethoven tried to make terms for publication, Breitkopf assured him there was no demand for church music. At one time Beethoven would even have given Breitkopf the Mass to ensure its future. ‘The reason for my having wished to bind you to publish this Mass is in the first place and chiefly because it is dear to my heart and in spite of the coldness of our age to such works: he wrote. Ultimately it was published, and received chastened approbation, which in Victorian days swelled to adulation mixed with revolting patronage. Latterly it has returned to the list of works more honoured in name than in deed.
The Esterhazy entourage were not altogether wrong in detecting the experimental element in the Mass in C. The Victorians can be excused for surprise at what they called Beethoven’s ‘singular ideas.’ But our business now is to revalue the Mass both for its own sake and for the light it brings to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and his still later works.
On the constructional side the Mass in C is divided into the customary movements, the Osanna being repeated after the Benedictus. During the first three numbers, the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, Beethoven employs the key of C major, as the point of departure and arrival, but the modulations within those movements follow a different circle in each case. Then, as if to show the change to some condition above the earth, he sets the Sanctus and Osanna in A major, while between them comes the Benedictus in F major - a favourite key with him to express tranquillity and blessedness. For the Agnus Dei he uses C minor, and comes back to C major for the ‘Dona nobis.’ But to confirm the scheme he does a thing which is an aesthetic and psychological master-stroke: he repeats the pleading music with which the mass had opened on the words ‘Kyrie eleison’ as a coda to the whole work on the supplication ‘Dona nobis pacem.’ Thus he unified the work and linked its emotional sequence into a perfect circle. Here was the principle of his Liederkreis, applied nine years ahead of the time when he is said to have invented it.
This rounding of the work was all the more valuable that the relative proportions of the movements were not quite perfect. But the choral writing in the Mass in C is more feasible for singers than that of the Missa Solemnis, and the orchestration is beautiful. The instruments take their part beside the chorus almost like living creatures. It is possible that the loveliness and depth of Beethoven’s intentions were a little greater than the thematic material in which he expressed them, but every movement of the mass has wonderful beauties. Note the Kyrie, in which the first long-phrased melodies are followed by short points of imitation and brief ever-shifting modulations, as if Beethoven looked out and saw imploring hands lifted everywhere over the world beseeching help. The broad diatonic harmonies and the stability of the choral writing in the following Gloria give a wonderful impression of the unchanging eternal strength of God. Beethoven’s close illustration of the text is seen at his setting of the words ‘Laudamaus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te,’ where at ‘adoramus’ he bows himself down clean out of C major into the chord of B flat major. (The Victorians called it a Gothic progression!)
For the ‘Qui tollis’ Beethoven goes into F minor - a key which he seemed to associate with suffering and punishment borne by the innocent, since he used it in Fidelio for Florestan and in the overture to Egmont. At the words ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ he reduces the voices from four-part harmony to octaves for the first time, as if to show the oneness of Christ with God, and thereafter throughout the work octaves at
unison are often employed in connection with the idea of God as the One, for example, at the words ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ and later in the Credo at ‘Deum verum de Deo vero.’
Up to the ‘Quoniam’ the style has been mainly melodic and harmonic, with some canonic imitation, but at the words ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu,’ Beethoven introduces a movement in fugal style which is developed with brilliant effect. The Credo, musically very fine, is psychologically profoundly interesting. If the descending phrases at ‘descendit’ might have been done by any composer, no one except Beethoven would have set the ‘Et incarnatus’ thus, with so much meaning in such subtle simplicity. As if to make his progressions clearer, he allots this section to solo voices. The poignancy of the harmony in the orchestra at the words ‘et homo factus est’ gives an indescribable impression of Beethoven’s view of manhood just as if he said: "Tis glorious misery to be born a man’ - and the extraordinary slither of semitones at ‘sub Pontio Pilato’ (like water falling away) expresses Beethoven’s contempt for Pilate’s despicable weakness.
The fugal element reappears briefly at ‘Et resurrexit’ and at the ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi, Amen,’ a great choral fugue rolls forward on glorious waves of melody.
This association in Beethoven’s mind between the idea of Life Everlasting and fugue as its musical symbol is not a mere chance, nor even a second-hand acceptance of the practice of other composers who had introduced fugal writing at this point. I am convinced he adopted it deliberately.
Beethoven never accepted anything for his great works to which he could not subscribe with his whole being. Fugue and invertible counterpoint offered him material almost as sure as the progressions of pure mathematics. For example, the interval of the perfect fifth when inverted can only produce the perfect fourth and vice versa; the major third can only become a minor sixth, and so on. Musically, therefore, fugue would be right as the symbol for Beethoven’s conception of the life of the world to come, and metaphysically he was right in identifying that life with God ‘in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life’ as the collect says.
The Sanctus is a short movement like a sojourn in heavenly peace. It contains beautiful harmonic textures, and an enharmonic modulation so characteristic of Beethoven that I quote it.
The Benedictus is a long flowing movement, beautifully orchestrated; the Agnus Dei is heartfelt; the ‘Dona nobis’ contains an almost too graphic passage in which the voices mutter antiphonally ‘miserere, miserere,’ and the mass ends - as I have already said - with a return of the lovely melody with which it had opened.
It has been hard to give even a bare outline of the C major Mass in the space available, but the difficulty dwindles to nothing when compared with that of describing and assessing the Mass in D major - the Missa Solemnis - one of the masterpieces of the world, which occupied Beethoven from 1818 to 1823. As well try to fix Mount Everest on the point of a pen!
Historically the Mass in D arose from Beethoven’s wish to compose something for the enthronement of his pupil the Archduke Rudolph, as Archbishop of Olmutz. He produced a work so stupendous and so exacting that for over a century the world has relegated it to the concert room. Beethoven himself never heard a complete performance. Nevertheless it was designed for a religious purpose, and Bekker goes rather beyond the mark when he asserts that it took no account of liturgical customs, that it was a logical pursuance of the path struck out in the symphonies and that ‘only the outward form, words, plan and structure were borrowed from the ecclesiastical Mass; inwardly the work is the appropriate link between the eighth and ninth Symphonies - a sacred symphony with solo and chorus.’
Certainly the Missa Solemnis is laid out for four soloists, a large chorus and full orchestra, such as no ordinary church could produce. Also it is far too long for liturgic use, and the treatment of the words sometimes departs from Catholic dogma and the rubric. But Beethoven had in view a ceremony of exceptional grandeur, in which a prince of the imperial house was to be enthroned as a prince of the Church, while above all was the thought of God the King and Father, before whose Throne these earthly and spiritual splendours were no more than the drift of stardust. For such purposes the Mass in D was not unsuitable - it was only too great for average human beings, a fault of which few composers are guilty.
Perhaps recollections of the installation of Maximilian Franz long ago as Elector of Cologne had lingered in Beethoven’s memory. Or he may have witnessed when a boy some such tremendous festival in Cologne Cathedral as that which inspired Schumann to his Rhenish Symphony. Old Memories united with the present; the Mass would indeed be for Cologne Cathedral since The Archduke Rudolph’s enthronement was to take place there. The proof that Beethoven intended the Missa Solemnis for a liturgical purpose can be found in his division of the text according to the Catholic use (quite unlike Bach’s B minor Mass), in the introduction of a solemn Präludium for orchestra alone at the place where the elevation of the Host should take place, and in his intention of adding to the finished work a Gradual, an Offertory, and a setting of the hymn Tantam ergo, movements which apparently were never written out though they existed in Beethoven’s mind.
To compose the Missa Solemnis Beethoven restudied the text of the Mass. The results were yet more amazing than before. Where he had approached the words as a musician, he now administered their meaning with the authority of a priest. A comparison between his two settings, noting those views which he retained and those which he altered, is an experience enriching to one’s own life. The great fugue in the Missa Solemnis on the words ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’ lifts one to such an exultation as cannot be described when its meaning is confirmed by the recollection of Beethoven’s earlier fugue on these words, and I know no pages in music whose mere look conveys such a sense of the teeming millions of eternity as the pages of the full score at this point. Little wonder Beethoven forgot time when wrestling with Eternity. (Poor Schindler, surprising Beethoven in the act of composition, ascribed his fearful look to his hatred of contrapuntists!) On the other hand Beethoven’s feeling about the incarnation had changed. Formerly at the words ‘homo factus est’ Beethoven had been penetrated by the misery of manhood. Now he had suffered still more deeply and had won to an inner, transcendent serenity in which his whole heart flowed out with thankfulness to God become man; the mystical joy and beauty of Beethoven’s music for the Incarnatus are not expressible save in terms of music.
But though he came to the Missa Solemnis as a man far in advance of the Beethoven of 1807, the years of concentration on the Mass affected him profoundly. The work carried him into spiritual regions beyond common experience. Musically it drew him into the new developments which mark his third period.
In form the mass is as perfectly organized as any of Beethoven’s symphonies - its peculiar glory being that while every detail is suggested by the text, ‘the multiplicity of words gives Beethoven occasion to produce some of his most gigantic symphonic designs as Professor Tovey comprehensively says, adding: ‘I say "symphonic" in full view of the fact that the forms that Beethoven has thus produced are in no way a priori, but are dictated at every point by the course of the words.’
The texture is infinitely richer than that of the Mass in C. The distinction between themes and tutti often observable in the earlier work has now merged into that later style where the melodic onflow is inexhaustible as the waves of the sea, and (like waves to the wind) as endlessly mutable to the Spirit that bloweth where it listeth. In this sea of music Beethoven holds his harmonic and contrapuntal elements in solution with astounding success.
The choral writing shows a similar synthesis. Beethoven’s perception of choral style and his evocation of the effects possible only to voices is far greater here than in other work of his, yet one is conscious also that he is imagining and employing the two bodies of voices and instruments as a kind of double orchestra. In most instances this is deeply impressive; but voices cannot bear such long strains of effort as instruments, nor will they produce such rhythmic accentuation as Beethoven often required, so moments occur when the means attract attention rather than the end.
The Kyrie follows the same ternary form as that of the Mass in C, and again for the middle section (the ‘Christe eleison’) the modulation is to a key a third away from the tonic. But whereas the C major movement modulated to E major, the third above, this one goes to B minor, the third below. Whether this insistence on the number three was suggested by the idea of the Trinity, or sprang from a purely aesthetic impulse, we shall never know.
The Gloria of the Missa Solemnis is an enormous conception in which the contrasting sections (moulded by the successive meanings of the text) are united with consummate power to lead forward to a final fugue on the words ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.’ This starts on such a gigantic scale that had ‘a more guileless composer worked it out normally he would not have got through it in twenty minutes’ - as Professor Tovey points out - but ‘what happens with Beethoven is that within the compass of six bars he contrives to give a sense that this passage (bars 434-40) has gone round the universe.’ The effect is obtained by rapid and remote modulations which obliterate the hearer’s sense of key.
The Credo (B flat major) is yet more gigantic than the Gloria - a magnificent movement unfolding a chain of movements bound together by the use throughout of the same phrase for the word ‘Credo’ as if here Beethoven touched the points in it which are like the nodes in a vibrating string. The grandeur of the opening ‘Credo’ the mystical beauty of the ‘Et incarnatus’ (in which Beethoven goes back to the sixteenth century and forward one hundred years to use the ‘pure strains of the Dorian mode’), the wonderful setting of the Crucifixus where at the end he brings everything down to a low open octave on D flat at the words ‘et sepultus’ (a piece of musical expression easy to read for anyone acquainted with his ideas), the splendid Resurrexit announced in the Mixolydian mode and continued by great ascending lines, all these unforgettable things lead to the final fugue, ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ which crowns the whole as with life eternal.
At the beginning of the Sanctus (D major) Beethoven had written the same direction as for the first Kyrie - Mit Andacht (with devotion). This mystical, intimate movement kindles into an Osanna that is like sacred fire, and it is followed by the exquisite orchestral Präludium at the elevation of the Host. Then, from the high quiet B natural on which it has floated into our consciousness, there descends a violin solo that streams on in endlessly blessed, beautiful melody through the G major Benedictus. This loveliness must be heard to be believed - and only after it has gone do we realize the genius of Beethoven’s melodic, harmonic and canonic devices, or the perfect tone-values of his choral and orchestral texture.
The Agnus Dei (B minor) is rightly dark and agonized. It leads direct into the ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ where Beethoven has taken the course of explaining his intentions by the inscription Bitte um innern und aussern Frieden (Prayer for inner and outward peace). The earliest movements in the Mass are the most liturgical. At its ending Beethoven makes his own comments on the horror and terror of war. He had lived through the Napoleonic invasions. The symbolism of his military sounding passages goes straight now (1934) to the heart of people who lived through the Great War, as it could not to comfortable Victorians who saw in the music (an irony worthy of Hardy’s Intelligences) Beethoven’s compliance with the convention of a cheerful ending! Beethoven never shirks a responsibility, and never leaves problems unsolved. He knew that prayers are answered, deliverance sure. With peace that descends like the Holy Dove, the mass ends.
While writing the Mass in D Beethoven planned two other masses as companion works. A few sketches exist for one in C sharp minor, but though this was designed for the emperor, Beethoven ultimately abandoned the idea, and the other mass remained only a project.
What would have happened had they been written? On the evidence of the Mass in D and the ninth Symphony Professor Tovey suggests that Beethoven might have become as great in choral music as in symphonic composition. That precious, young man’s quality of experiment remained with him to the last.