Beethoven has a reputation for writing extraordinarily for every instrument except the voice, partly because especially in choral music the sopranos are always written very high and the text is difficult to articulate. His only opera, Fidelio, is a masterpiece musically, but it also has the reputation of being very hard to sing. I believe that in the Missa solemnis this quality of being difficult is part of the fabric of the music. It’s part of the emotion and the impact Beethoven wants to have with this text.
As with many other composers, Beethoven struggled writing this setting of the Catholic Mass because he wanted to be writing extraordinary double fugues and counterpoint and have a very majestic structure like his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. The result for Beethoven, predictably, is that the Missa solemnis is much more than a liturgical setting of the text. It’s Beethoven at his most visionary. It transcends any religion and brings humankind together. Especially telling is this extraordinary moment at the end in the Dona nobis pacem, which means “Grant us peace.” There are sounds of distant timpani and trumpets, which is the fanfare of a threat of military siege and eventually invasion. It’s going away at the end but there’s always this threat of war even when Beethoven is asking for peace.
I couldn’t be more thrilled now to have the opportunity to bring my vision of the piece with the great Philadelphians to you, alongside Refik Anadol and his global vision of the text through his wonderful visual setting.
Beethoven’s Missa solemnis will be performed April 7, 9, and 10, 2022, in Philadelphia and April 8 in Carnegie Hall.
Photo: Jessica Griffin