Friday, May 6, 2016 - 8pm
Carnegie Hall - 57th Street & 7th Avenue, New York, NY (Map)
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Missa Solemnis, Conductor’s Note
I’m writing these words in a café in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, after leading the PEI Symphony in a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony. This is “Burger Love” month in Charlottetown and the burger aficionados are out in force. A server stops by a neighboring table: “How were the burgers?” “Great!” is the reply, en masse, from the happy burger-devourers.
If “great” is the adjective of choice for a hamburger, where does that leave us for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis?
I’ve been musing about the relationship of greatness – importance? – to weight. We’re all trying to travel a bit more lightly nowadays, and perhaps Missa Solemnis, like the rest of us, could usefully shed some baggage. It is, as critics and historians have long noted, an odd work. Adorno: “there is something peculiar about Missa Solemnis.” Beethoven famously struggled over it, taking forever to complete it and promising it to multiple patrons.
There can be no doubt that Beethoven intended Missa to be his quintessential spiritual tract, a distillation of all he believed. The sacred Mass text would again be pressed into service (after the out-of-town tryout that was the Mass in C) as a vehicle for a grand statement in a secular humanist vein, an experiment he was concurrently attempting in the Ninth Symphony. The Missa would be large-hearted – about everything, and everybody. It would be vast and all-encompassing. And yet, its inscription reads “Von Herzen – Möge es wieder – Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart – may it return to the heart!”). Personal.
The Missa is clearly meant to be expansive and far-reaching; but it does not necessarily follow that it must be delivered or experienced as monumental or heavy: indigestible. Ponderousness and bombast are not inevitable entailments of universality. Why not, instead, radiance and sweep?
With lightness and transparency (leading to transcendence?) identified as performance desiderata, what is one to make of Beethoven’s dynamic markings (frequently ff and sometimes fff), insistent call for accents (successions of multiple sforzandi), and the music’s merciless physical demands (much of the vocal writing is in the highest extremes of the register, the intricate phrases coming one after another after another)?
Notwithstanding all of the above, we must operate from a grounding assumption that the music is meant to be, above all, beautiful – luminous – and that this elevating beauty is what is meant to be expressive of the soul of all humanity, communicative to all who listen in. The dynamics can be understood as telegraphing intensity and emphasis as much as – rather than – a flatly literal loudness.
The musical building blocks of the Missa are in no way esoteric: lines comprise leaps and scales, often in exquisite equilibrium; harmonies are, for the most part, hometown fare (though naturally we are led farther afield in more than a few places, for example in the disorienting symmetries of the diminished harmonies of the Crucifixus). In the Kyrie, for example, a characteristic falling third is paired with an ascending scale. Many observers have commented on the prevalence of the falling third motif throughout the Missa(to mention just a few: on “Kyrie” and “Christe” in the Kyrie; on the last two syllables of “Excelsis” in the Gloria; on the opening “Credo” or the word “homo” (man) of the Credo”; “Dona” in Agnus Dei).
It is worth noting that, in the Missa this interval is often presented as falling from the dominant (as in the first two notes “Oh-oh” of The Star Spangled Banner), and sometimes from other scale degrees, and that the arrival point is almost never the tonic (the first note of the scale), not even at the very end of theMissa. The flavor throughout is one of seeking, of yearning; a journeying toward, but without arrival. More call than response.
About accent: Beethoven lades the score with the marking sf. This leaves room for performers and listeners to be creative: depending on the context, a succession of accents might as easily be violent slashes from the dagger of Anthony Perkins in Psycho (“Crucifixus”) as an infant’s happy spoon-poundings on the highchair tray (“In Gloria Dei Patris.”)
For all of its taxing, crazy writing, there is something consummately vocal about much of the Missa. As jaggedly instrumental as some of the choral lines are, others are eminently singable (Agnus Dei: “Dona nobis pacem”. And some are instantly memorable: the motto technique is one Beethoven deploys throughout the work (e.g. opening phrases of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.).
As a conductor, I’m also fascinated by Beethoven’s fearless – even impatient – handling of transition. Often he dispenses with transitional longueurs, instead, ever the drag-racing teenager – shifting gears or changing scenes by means of a single chord. The abruptness can be startling, but also bracing.
Everyone who rehearses or listens to Missa (and indeed other works by Beethoven) knows the work can be exhausting. But all that energy is oh-so-worth expending. One comes away exalted: a better person.
©Mark Shapiro 2016
The Cecilia Chorus of New York is the 2015 winner of the Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award! Please see this press release for further details.
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