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Missa Solemnis (Beethoven)

Ludwig van Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in D Major, Op 123 was composed in 1817-1823.

Beethoven's second setting of the mass (his first being the Mass in C, Op. 86, which is far less admired), is one of the composer's supreme achievements, and, with Bach's Mass in b minor, the most significant mass setting of the Common practice period. Beethoven himself, in his last years, referred to it as his finest work, and though it has notably failed to reach the popularity of many of the symphonies and sonatas, it indisputably represents Beethoven at the height of his powers.

The mass is scored for full classical orchestra (including trombones), four-part chorus, and SATB soloists.


Like all masses, the 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 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 capella setting of the "et resurrexit" that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the fugue on "et vitam venturi" at the close, that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire when the subject returns at twice the speed for a thrilling conclusion.

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 simply beautiful music, in an remarkably long extension of the text.

Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea misere nobis that begins with the men's voices alone yields, eventual, to a bright D-major prayer "dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace) in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn's Missa in Tempore Belli) but eventually brings itself to a stately conclusion.

Critical Response

Some critics have been captured by the problem that, as Theodor Adorno put it, "there is something peculiar about the Missa Solemnis." In many ways, it is an atypical work, even for Beethoven. Missing is the sustained exploration of themes through development that is one of Beethoven's hallmarks. The massive fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo align it with the work of his late period--but his simultaneous interest in the theme and variations form is more than absent. Instead, the missa presents a continuous musical narrative, almost without repetition, particularly in the Gloria and Credo movements which last longer than any of the others. The style, Adorno has noted, is as close to treatment of themes in imitation that one finds in the Flemish masters such as Josquin des Prez and Johannes Ockeghem, but it is unclear whether Beethoven was conciously imitating their techniques or whether this is simply a case of convergent evolution to meet the peculiar demands of the mass text. Donald Francis Tovey has connected Beethoven to the earlier tradition in a different way: "Not even Bach or Handel can show a greater sense of space and of sonority. There is no earlier choral writing that comes so near to revocering some of the lost secrets of the style of Palestrina. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual colour of every chord, every position, and every doubled third or discord."

Perhaps the best way to recognize the importance of the mass in Beethoven's work is to acknowledge its singularity, and to view its remarkable variety and forceful individuality as the reflection of Beethoven's own relationship with the divine. Some have remarked that his treatment of the text--including the addition of a sigh, "a," in the Miserere section of the Gloria, and the quick disposal of several lines of text in the Credo underneath the weight of the two other choral parts and orchestra--shows a willful indifference to the more dogmatic precepts of the church, while others see the forceful expression of the central movements as having a sincerity that could only be borne of true belief. What is certain is that the Missa Solemnis is a difficult work, and a contentious one. But perhaps in being so, it mirrors Beethoven's own faith.