'Beethoven's most challenging piece remains Missa Solemnis. It can loom like a forbidding monolith over performer and audience alike. '
by Michael Tilson Thomas
This is a pity because Beethoven considered it one of his supreme creations – his spiritual guidebook on which he worked for more than four years.
Beethoven’s first intention was to write music for the mass celebrating the investiture of Archduke Rudolph, his patron and sometime pupil, as a Prince of the Church. Beethoven had a great sense of occasion and intended the piece to be a spectacle of music rivalling, even surpassing, the great choral pieces of Handel and Haydn.
Missa Solemnis follows the order of the Mass and pursues many other objectives. It illuminates and meditates on the text by repeating and recombining it many times. Each repetition expresses a new aspect of Beethoven’s understanding of the words. These repetitions create architectural zones that allow him to display the power of the large forms he was perfecting. For me, the piece suggests a visit to a cathedral. As in a cathedral, different chapels are dedicated to different spiritual territories. Some are majestic, some intimate, some symphonic or even operatic.
The piece is written largely in counterpoint. Beethoven wanted to show his mastery of this ancient art. Sometimes he makes reference to styles of music written hundreds of years earlier by composers such as Schütz, Palestrina and Lassus, before launching into his own daring inventions.
Above all, Missa Solemnis offered Beethoven the opportunity to explore and reflect on the nature of time itself, on the contrast between the fleeting time of human life and the vastness of divine time.
So why, with all these amazing things happening, can the piece seem impenetrable? Like many ambitious works written for large forces it can strangle on its own complexity and majesty. With so many people doing so many things at the same time and place, it can be difficult to follow the music’s many strands. The mission of this performance is to create more space around the music allowing us to better follow the streams of Beethoven’s thought.
Michael Tilson Thomas, LSO Conductor Laureate,