What has drawn us to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on the 200th anniversary of its first premiere?

At first glance it should be an obvious thing to do given the composer himself rated it as his finest composition. Mounting a performance of the Missa Solemnis, however, is not for the faint-hearted.

At some 90 minutes in length, it presents numerous logistic and artistic challenges, including requiring a large chorus of particular skill and stamina to perform it. This no doubt helps explain why this particular anniversary has for the most part been bypassed by our major orchestras.

Equally, however, it is why it is an ideal work for The Orchestra Project to present – part of its mission is to give opportunities for younger musicians to experience great works of the orchestral repertoire that they might not otherwise get to perform.

 

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnnis Op. 123. Facsimile of the Autograph Score held in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Furthermore, much of the peculiar power and significance of this work arises precisely out of the challenges it presents in performance. By the time Beethoven came to compose the work, initially intended for the enthronement in 1819 of his friend, patron, and some-time pupil, Archduke Rudolph as the Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc, in Moravia, Czech Republic), he was close to being profoundly deaf. As a result, his music became less concerned with the pragmatics of performance; instead he was realising what he could now only hear from within his own imagination.

A century later, the German critic Paul Bekker wrote that this estrangement also led his mass setting to break through the walls of tradition and dogma “which divide the church from the world”. This helps explain why the work has been almost exclusively performed in the concert hall, or, if in a church, not in the liturgical setting for which it was originally intended.

Beethoven was, however, also deeply concerned to understand the traditions of mass settings that came before him. Indeed, before he stared work on the Mass he made a study of the works of Palestrina, and also made his own German translation of the traditional Latin text. He knew he could not simply follow the examples of his forebears, observing in one letter that it was impossible merely to “imitate Palestrina’s language” in a world so different from his.

Ironically, the lengthy preparatory work he did on the Mass would ensure that its first performance would also not be part of a service. Archduke Rudolph was consecrated in September 1819, but it would not be until the spring of 1823 that Beethoven finally sent him the score (replete with the famous inscription at the top that the work: “from the heart — may it go — to the heart again!”).

By then, Beethoven had also been offering copies of the manuscript to other patrons for 50 ducats. One of those, Prince Nikolai Galitzin (who had already commissioned three ‘late’ quartets from the composer) was able to arrange a premiere concert performance in the Tsar’s Chapel in St Petersburg, on 7 April 1824.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Photo © Finn Whelan / Pexels

Fast forward 200 years (to the very day!), and we will mount a liturgical performance of this extraordinary work in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

In one sense, celebrations of musical anniversaries are, of course, merely numerology in the service of marketing. But they can also provide us an opportunity to reflect and contemplate on both the passing of historical time and how historical events and practices continue to echo in our own.

In the Missa Solemnis those echoes are many indeed. In the work’s closing section, for example, an extended coda based on the final word of the ordinary of the traditional Catholic Mass, “Dona nobis pacem” [Grant us peace], serves to remind us that, just as was the case in the 1820s, we live in a world that it is far from exhibiting any sense of peace.

By giving an audience a chance to hear them in the context of an actual mass service we aim to emphasise this amalgam of ritual ceremony, musical creativity, and enlightenment humanism that in fact characterises the whole work. Heard initially in their liturgically correct place, the words then initiate one of Beethoven’s famous extended codas to give voice to what Beethoven himself describes as a Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden [prayer for inner and outer peace].

The Mass’s four vocal soloists interject forceful, impassioned, perhaps even fearful pleas for mercy, and the chorus takes up these requests in the form of a fugato, while the orchestra ominously evoke the sounds of military bands. A timely reminder, should one be needed, of both the ever-looming disaster of war but also of our shared longing for peace.

Whether performers or audiences come to it on Sunday 7 April at St Paul’s with any faith or none, they will have a chance to experience a work of art that, even after 200 years, still speaks directly “from the heart to the heart again.”


The Orchestra Project presents Missa Solemnis, Op 123 in liturgical context on Sunday 7 April 2024, St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Entry is free (donations welcome)

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