Read CHAPTER XIII - MISSA SOLEMNIS of Beethoven, free online book, by George Alexander Fischer, on

Christianity is the doctrine of the deep guilt of the human race
through its existence alone, and the longing of the heart for
deliverance from it.


To Christianity and the spirit of religion in man we are indebted for some of the finest arts which adorn our civilization. It was the religious principle which brought into being the temples and statuary of ancient Greece, as well as the splendid examples of Gothic architecture, which have come down to us from the middle ages. It is this which has given us those masterpieces in painting and sculpture, which have so enriched the world; but above all it has given us music, highest of all the arts. Here its influence has been most potent. Originating outside the church, it found its best development within it. Religious fervor had inspired some imperishable works of genius at a period when nothing much had yet been done in secular music. The Masses of Palestrina, the entire life-work of Sebastian Bach, the oratorios of Haendel, are cases in point. The old masters with hardly an exception gave their best thought to sacred music. Bach has been mentioned. Haydn’s important work comes under this classification. Of the works of Haendel, only those of a religious nature have survived to the present day, although he composed many operas.

The Masses and Passion-music of the old composers were often written without hope of reward, entirely from love of the subject; they were impelled to it, either through religious ardor, or from the force of their artistic perceptions. The stateliness and solemnity of the Mass, the tragic possibilities of the Passion, appealed to them, and satisfied the tendency toward mysticism, which is so often a part of the artistic nature.

As an art, music finds its best development when of a religious character. While operatic and even orchestral music in general, is written more for the sake of giving pleasure than with any clearly defined ethical purpose, the music of the Mass and Passion, religious ceremonies, entering into man’s profoundest experiences, is given for spiritual enlightenment, and, being a part of the soul’s needs, demands and receives higher treatment and more serious consideration than secular music. The very frame of mind which takes possession of a person while listening to music of a religious character, is favorable to a true appreciation of it. The listener is more in earnest, and the emotions called up by the subject impress him more strongly than when listening to secular music. These considerations have their influence on the composer also. We usually find in religious music of the best class, depth and earnestness of purpose commensurate with the expectation of the listener.

These few words are preliminary to a consideration of the Mass in D, the work in which Beethoven reached his culmination as an artist. He himself so regarded it, declaring it to be his greatest and best work. It is certain that he spent more time on it, and gave it a larger share of his attention than was devoted to any other of his works.

For several years prior to this, Beethoven’s muse had been silent for the most part. No important work since the completion of the Eighth Symphony had been achieved, with the exception of the sonatas mentioned in a previous chapter. This was owing to the various lawsuits in which he found himself involved. His troubles had now been adjusted, however, to such an extent as to enable him to again turn his attention to large works. The pension which had been settled on him in 1809 had been imperilled by the death of Prince Kinsky and the bankruptcy of Prince Lobkowitz. The portion of it which had been pledged to him by these gentlemen had been discontinued or greatly reduced, and Beethoven had to have recourse to the law to protect his rights. A compromise was finally effected, which resulted in the pension being paid in part. Although the litigation, in regard to his nephew was still on, it was becoming more and more apparent that the outcome of it would be in his favor. His mind at rest on these points, we find him once more in good health and spirits, with creative energy not only unimpaired but greater than ever. “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor,” said Emerson.

The announcement of the Archduke’s appointment as Archbishop of Olmuetz, had been definitely made during the summer of 1818. It was well known for years previously that he would receive this appointment, and it is quite likely that Beethoven had always intended writing a mass to commemorate it. Considering the close relations existing between master and pupil for so many years, and Beethoven’s obligations to Rudolph in money matters, he could hardly have let so momentous an event go by, without writing a mass for it. A mass was probably always intended, but not such a one as eventually grew out of his original idea, which, expanding, augmenting in force and grandeur as the significance of the work took possession of his mind, finally became an apotheosis of friendship, a message to the world.

That the Archduke appreciated Beethoven and valued his friendship is plain. He carefully preserved the letters written him by the master and dedicated to him some of his own compositions. He had as complete a library of Beethoven’s works as was attainable, and was thoroughly familiar with the master’s music. That Beethoven responded to this to an equal degree is not likely. He lived too abstracted a life for that. He valued this friendship as much as such a man could, considering the disparity in rank and the difference in mode of thought of the two men. In dedicating so many of his compositions to him, and in consenting to teach him for so long a period, he showed the esteem in which he held him. Probably no other person, man or woman received the deference and consideration from Beethoven, which he accorded the Archduke. The republican, socialistic Beethoven was not specially influenced by his rank; rather, it was his personality and devotion to music, which won the regard of the master and formed the bond between them.

In the composition of the mass, Beethoven was on familiar ground; the work was congenial to him. The emotions called up by the subject swayed him to such an extent that he had difficulty in keeping it within bounds. The mass was a form of music with which he had been associated from childhood. It will be remembered that he played the organ at the age of twelve years at church services, a practice which was kept up for some years. His earliest impressions on the subject of music were in this style. He was, in addition, inclined to it by temperament.

The beautiful text appealed to him strongly. It is related that when the German version of his first Mass (in C) was brought him, he quickly opened the manuscript and ran over a few pages. When he came to the Qui tollis, the tears trickled from his eyes and he was obliged to desist, saying with the deepest emotion, “Yes, that was precisely my feeling when I composed it.”

His journal entries at the time of beginning work on the Mass in D show how completely the subject had taken possession of him. “To compose true religious music, consult the old chorals in use in monasteries,” he wrote, which gives the clew to his frequent lapses into the ancient ecclesiastical modes, the Lydian and Dorian, in this mass, a practice for which Bach furnished a precedent. “Drop operas and everything else, write only in your own style,” is another entry of this time, showing his predilection for church music.

The summer of 1818 was spent at Moedling. He was in the best of health and spirits as stated, and began the work with great energy and enthusiasm. His whole nature seemed to change, Schindler states, when he began the great work. His interest and absorption in it was extraordinary, as is shown by the sketch-books from the beginning. Enthusiasm carried him on to the consummation of a greater work than any he had yet accomplished. Hitherto, every achievement was merely a resting-place up the mountainside, the prospect acting as a spur to him to go yet higher, well knowing what Emerson finely stated, and was putting into practice at this very time, that new gifts will be supplied in proportion as we make use of those we have. Dem Muthigen hilft Gott! said Schiller. Beethoven seemed to have some prevision that only a few more years would be allotted him for work; when he began on the mass his inspiration was like a river that had broken its bounds. Every nerve and fibre of his being called him to his work. He was like a war-horse that scents the battle. He now abandoned himself more than ever to the impulse for creating. For the next few years he lived the abstracted life of the enthusiast to whom every-day concerns are but incidental and unimportant things, and his art the one great matter. The gigantic tone-pictures which were constantly forming themselves in his inner consciousness were of so much greater importance than the events of his external life, that the latter were dwarfed by comparison and lost their significance. He now made a greater surrender of the ties connecting him with every-day life than ever before. His industry was phenomenal, but it soon became apparent that the work would not be ready for the Installation, the date of which was set for March 20, 1820. It was in reality not completed until nearly two years after this event.

We have a good description of the master at this time by the artist Klober, who had been commissioned by a wealthy relative who was forming a gallery of famous Vienna artists, to paint a portrait of Beethoven.

“Beethoven had a very earnest look; his vivacious eyes were for the most part turned upwards, with a thoughtful and rather a gloomy expression, which I have tried to represent. His lips were closed, but the mouth was not an unkindly one. He was ready enough to expatiate on the arrogant vanity and depraved taste of the Viennese aristocracy, by whom he feels himself neglected, or at least underrated.”

“Beethoven sat to me for nearly an hour every morning. When he saw my picture, he observed that the style of hair pleased him very much; other painters had always dressed it up as if he were going to court, not at all as he generally wore it.”

“His house at Moedling was extremely simple; so, indeed, was his whole manner of life. His dress consisted of a light-blue coat with yellow buttons, white waistcoat and neckcloth, such as were then worn, but everything about him was very negligee. His complexion was florid, the skin rather pock-marked, his hair the color of blue steel, for the black was already changing to grey. His eyes were a bluish-grey and exceedingly vivacious. When his hair streamed in the breeze there was a sort of Ossian-like daemonism about him. But, when talking in a friendly way, he would assume a good-natured, gentle expression, particularly if the conversation was agreeable to him.”

As we have seen, it had been a favorite project of Beethoven for years to write a mass. When he started to carry out his ideas, one course only seems to have been possible to him. This was, to project it on the principle of his Symphonies, in which the orchestra should take the commanding part in interpreting the emotional and dramatic possibilities of the text. His experience with his first mass had confirmed him in the belief that he could give the best expression to his ideas by the use of the orchestra, on account of its greater range, its mobility, the variety of its tones. The idea of making it of more importance than the voice, upset all preconceived theories on the subject. The orchestra was emphatically the tool best adapted to Beethoven’s powers; he developed it into something wholly different from what it was when he found it. He put it to exquisite uses. His effects are the happiest imaginable and they are introduced with a prodigality and lavishness suggesting a reserve as of oceans from which to draw. Much of his vocal music is dominated by the orchestra.

It took a long while to make people understand that music instead of being the handmaid of poetry, whose function is merely to reflect the ideas of our spoken language, has a language of its own, which can convey ideas in itself, and that there are subtilties that can be expressed in this manner, which evade one when we come to use our coarser mode of expression. This is specially in evidence in Beethoven’s later work, particularly in the mass we are now considering. Wagner frequently compares it to a symphony. In Zukunftsmusik, he says: “In his Great Mass Beethoven has employed the choir and orchestra almost exactly as in the symphony;” and elsewhere he cites it as being a “strictly symphonic work of the truest Beethovenian spirit.”

In this work, however, he reaches out toward the infinite to a degree not attempted in the symphonies; his spirit takes a bolder flight; more of the inner nature of the artist is revealed; for the limits which bound him in the symphony were not operative in the mass. The very mode of projecting the first movement, the Kyrie, shows the splendor of the conception as it took form in his consciousness. The scheme of the movement can be summed up by the antithesis being presented of humanity, weak and sinful on the one side, and the overwhelming majesty of a just God on the other. It is a prayer for mercy, the cry of the soul in its extremity; the underlying thought being repentance. Here we have the embodiment of prayer, of supplication. A devotional feeling of the most exalted kind pervades it. The first of the three parts comprising the movement is storm and stress, a knocking on the gates, a De Profundus, an accusing conscience arraigning humanity. He works out of this vein to some extent in the second part, the Christe eleison, in which the appeal is made directly to the human element of the Godhead. In the third part, the themes of the first are again taken up, but by modulation they are made to take on a new significance, and bring peace in the end. Although the movement is cast for double chorus as regards the vocal part, the voices are given a subordinate place, the portrayal being carried on by the orchestra in true symphonic style. Notable in this movement is the rhythm. In all the storm and stress, a rhythmic motion, a systole and diastole, a surging to and fro, as of vast masses of beings in the last extremity of peril, is apparent.

To read meanings and design into the work of such a composer as Beethoven is the inevitable result of the transcendent nature of it. It was seldom that he vouchsafed any explanation of his musical intent in his compositions. Schindler, who thoroughly appreciated his genius, and who was eager for enlightenment on this phase of his art, was in the habit of drawing Beethoven out, as occasion offered, but it was always a difficult process. Simple and childlike in most matters, the master was wary and suspicious to an incredible degree when the conversation touched on the subject of his compositions. At times, however, this reserve gave way to Schindler’s persistency. When he asked him about the opening bars of the C minor Symphony (the Fifth) it brought out the well-known remark, “thus fate knocks at the door.” At another time, he asked him for an elucidation of the Sonatas in F minor (opus 57) and D minor (opus 29), and received the answer “read Shakespeare’s Tempest,” which was only half an answer. More definite is his meaning in the two Sonatas (opus 14), which represents the entreating and resisting principle in the conversation of a pair of lovers.

[Musical notation.]

Men of genius seldom care to explain their utterances. “The spirit gives it to me and I write it down” is a remark attributed to Beethoven, and this stated the case sufficiently from his point of view.

Zelter, director of the Singakademie of Berlin wrote Beethoven on completion of the Mass, asking him to arrange it for voices only, as nothing but a capella music was permitted by the institution. To this Beethoven gave a favorable reply, saying that with some modifications the project was feasible. It, however, was not carried out.

It is significant that Beethoven gives the German direction throughout in this Mass. At the Kyrie the direction is Mit Andacht. At the soli of the Agnus Dei he writes Aengstlich, denoting great agitation or anxiety. It may have been done as a kind of protest to the Italian cult in music, which had at this period taken complete possession of the Vienna public. The more solid German music was neglected in favor of Rossini, and Beethoven felt this change of front keenly, making it the subject of remark to Rochlitz and to others.

It can readily be supposed that works like the Mass in D are not easily produced. To get his materials for it Beethoven penetrated deeply the mystery surrounding life. The ideas which he voices seem always to have existed, like other great forces in the universe; he impresses one as being the discoverer, rather than the creator of them.

Schindler, who saw much of him during these years, says of his absorption in this work: “He actually seemed possessed, especially during the composition of the Credo.” It was while he was at work on this portion of the Mass, notably the great fugue, et vitam venturi (the life everlasting), that Schindler called on him one afternoon, but could not gain admission. He knew the master was at home as he could hear him stamping and shouting, singing the different parts as if mad. Finally the door was opened and Beethoven appeared. He was faint from hunger and overwork, having eaten nothing since the previous noon. His servants had, indeed, prepared some food for him the previous day, but he was too much interested in his work to think of it, and they were afraid to urge it on him, or indeed, go near him, while in the stress of composition. He had worked the previous night until overtaken by exhaustion and on awaking in the morning had at once resumed his work, continuing it until interrupted by Schindler’s arrival.

A work so transcendental in character as is this, calls for close and sympathetic study even to get an approximate understanding of its marvels. It is a characteristic of works of this nature, that although not easily comprehended, they are likewise not readily exhausted. Much study, many renderings only serve to bring out new values. Only by bringing to them of our best will they be revealed.

It must have been with a feeling of relief that he finally delivered a copy of the Mass complete into the Archduke’s hands in March of 1822, just two years after the Installation.

Beethoven wrote the sovereigns of Russia, France, Prussia and Saxony, proposing a subscription of fifty ducats, about $115 each, for the Mass. The first acceptance came from Prussia. One of the minor officials in Vienna was commissioned by Prince von Hatzfeld, the Prussian Ambassador, to ask Beethoven if he would not prefer a royal order instead of the fifty ducats. Beethoven’s reply was characteristic. Without a moment’s hesitation he said with emphasis, “fifty ducats!” showing the slight value he placed on distinctions of this kind. A reply that must have gratified him very much was that received from the King of France. In his letter to him, Beethoven refers to the Mass as “L’oeuvre lé plus accompli.” Louis XVIII, not only forwarded his acceptance (and the fifty ducats), but had also a gold medal struck off, containing his portrait on one side, and on the other, the following inscription: “Donne par lé Roi a monsieur Beethoven.” The King of Saxony delayed his remittance for a long while, and Beethoven was greatly irritated thereby.

But little other work was undertaken during the four years he was occupied on the Mass unless we except the three grand piano sonatas, opus 109, 110 and 111, which were composed during the intervals. A mere by-product so to speak, undertaken with the object of resting his faculties jaded by the strain of the greater work, his mind notwithstanding was keyed up to a high pitch, while engaged on them. The lofty imaginings which occupied his thoughts while on the Mass are reflected in them, rendering them unapproachable as piano sonatas. The master himself, set a great value on them.

Now that the Mass was completed he began to give his attention to other works. To celebrate the opening of the rehabilitated Josephstadt theatre which occurred in the autumn of 1822, Beethoven wrote a new overture, Weihe des Hauses. He also worked over for this occasion his Ruins of Athens, written in 1812, for which the text was altered to suit the new conditions and several new numbers added. Another representation of the almost forgotten Fidelio, which was selected by Fraeulein Schroeder-Devrient for her benefit, and which was a pronounced success through the genius of this remarkable woman, led to a commission for a new opera from a Vienna manager. This was followed shortly after by a similar order from Berlin on his own terms. There had also been some talk before this about an opera on an American subject, the Founding of Pennsylvania. It was suggested by a minor poet and government official, Johann Ruprecht, whose poem, Merkenstein, Beethoven had set to music previous to 1816. In 1820 Beethoven had planned an Italian tour and had intended taking Ruprecht with him. They must have quarrelled later, as in a letter to Schindler in 1823 Beethoven refers to Ruprecht in the most abusive terms.

A commission that must have gratified Beethoven exceedingly, but which, however, was not acted upon, was that which emanated from Breitkopf and Haertel, who sent the famous critic Friederich Rochlitz to Vienna in July, 1822, with a proposition that he write some Faust music in the style of the Egmont music. It is narrated that Beethoven received the proposition with joy, but gave only a qualified assent. There is no doubt that he would have found inspiration in the text, and that a noble work would have resulted, but he feared the nervous strain of such an undertaking. “I should enjoy it,” he said to Rochlitz, “but I shudder at the thought of beginning works of such magnitude. Once engaged on them, however, I have no difficulty.” His labors on the Mass aged him. In his prime on its inception, he emerged from his seclusion on completing it, infirm and broken in health. The idea of the Faust music attracted him, as it would have been strictly symphonic in character. He occasionally refers to it subsequently, but never got so far as to enter themes for it in his note-books. Wagner essayed it, but went no further than to write the overture. The subject of Faust still awaits a capable interpreter.

His next commission was a simple one, consisting of an order early in the spring of 1823 from Diabelli, composer and head of a large publishing house in Vienna, for six variations on a waltz by him (Diabelli). The dance was always a favorite musical form with Beethoven in his lighter moments, and the variation form, capable of a degree of sprightliness, vivacity and originality in the right hands which give it an entrancing effect, to which we come again and again with pleasure, was something peculiarly his own at every stage of his artistic career. His earliest essays in composition are in this form. Variations occupy a prominent part in all his works, whether chamber-music, sonatas or symphonies. They are introduced perhaps with best effect in the works of his last years, in the Ninth Symphony, and in the last quartets.

He accepted the order with pleasure and began work on it at once on reaching his summer quarters. This was congenial work, affording him relief from the mental strain imposed on him by his labors on the Ninth Symphony, which was then under way. A price of eighty ducats ($180) was fixed by the publisher at the outset for the set, but the master enjoyed his work so much, that the six, when completed, were increased to ten, then to twenty, and twenty-five, and so on until the number grew to thirty-three. These variations are extremely elaborate and difficult, a characteristic of most of his work in these years.

Wagner never tired of exploiting the variation form in his operas, particularly in the Tetralogy. He frequently refers to Beethoven’s masterly use of it. “Haydn first, Beethoven last, have conferred artistic value on this form,” he says in the article on conducting; later on in the same work, he says, “the wondrous second movement of Beethoven’s great C minor Sonata” (opus 111), “and the last movement of the Eroica Symphony should be grasped as an infinitely magnified Variation section.” Bach also excelled in it, the Variation form being constantly met with throughout his works.

The summer of 1823 was spent at Hetzendorf, a village of which Beethoven was always fond. He had secured large and comfortable quarters in the house of a Baron Pronay, which, from Schindler’s account was a fine old mansion in the centre of a large park. It suited Beethoven admirably. There was a fine view of the surrounding country from his windows, the situation was healthful, and he delighted in walking about when not at work. But he gave up this comfortable home before the summer was ended, simply on account of the extravagant politeness of his landlord, who, conscious of the value of so distinguished a tenant, always greeted him with “profound obeisances” when they met. This opera bouffe deportment though undertaken with the best of motives on the Baron’s part, became so embarrassing that Beethoven finally fled to Baden with all his belongings, including the grand piano, although his rent had been paid in advance for the entire summer. Schindler assisted in this migration, joining him at five o’clock one morning.

The year 1823 in which Beethoven practically completed his life-work (with the exception of the last quartets) is the dawn of a new musical genius, versatile, accomplished, many-sided, who as performer was qualified to rank with the older master. On New-year’s day of this year, Franz Liszt, who had been studying under Czerny for two years past, made his first appearance in Vienna in concert, in which he took the public by storm. Beethoven seems not to have been present, and strangely, when we reflect on his intimacy with Czerny, seems to have been unaware of the existence of this talented youth. During the autumn of this year, the elder Liszt called on Beethoven, bringing with him the young Franz. Beethoven held himself aloof at first, receiving his visitors coldly. He unbent however, on hearing the youth perform, and stooped and kissed him. During this autumn he also received a visit from Weber and young Julius Benedict, his pupil. Weber was preparing his recently completed opera Euryanthe, for a first production in Vienna. He had produced Fidelio in the foregoing spring season at Dresden, where he was officially stationed, and had made a success of it with Frau Schroeder-Devrient. Considerable correspondence must have passed between the two composers on this matter, and Weber could hardly have omitted calling when coming to Vienna, although the memory of his former strictures on Beethoven’s music must have embarrassed him. Weber had stated on hearing the Seventh Symphony for the first time that Beethoven was now fit for the madhouse, and his criticisms in general had been adverse. This, however, was something which Beethoven had never objected to; moreover, time had amply vindicated him as to the symphonies, so he could afford to be generous to his youthful critic. Beethoven was genial and kindly, and the younger man was deeply impressed by the master’s reception of him. Euryanthe proved a failure and Weber called again to ask Beethoven’s advice as to remodelling the work.

The libretto Melusina, which was submitted to him by Grillparzer found such favor in his eyes as to lead to its acceptance, but when he came face to face with the project, his former experience with opera was sufficient to deter him, and he abandoned the idea, giving as an excuse the inferiority of the German singers. That this was only an excuse, is plain, since only a short time afterward Mlle. Sontag was intrusted with the exceedingly difficult soprano parts of the Mass in D and the Ninth Symphony. He was hard at work on this Symphony at the time, which will serve to explain and accentuate his reluctance to again attempt operatic composition, a style of work diametrically opposed to that which had engaged his attention for many years previously. It would too, have necessitated shelving the Symphony indefinitely, and, although he needed the money which the opera would have yielded, his interest in the Symphony was paramount; he could not bring himself to abandon it. With failing powers superinduced by his excessive labors on the Mass, it was being borne in on him that he was nearing the end of his life-work. Under such circumstances the Symphony was sure to have the preference. The long cherished plans for another oratorio, and for a Requiem Mass also insistently came up for consideration, crowding out all serious intention of an opera.

The project of a Requiem Mass was of particular interest to him; it comes to the fore frequently. He mentioned it shortly after the completion of the Mass in C. Then, when his brother Karl died it is again considered. It is also mentioned on the occasion of the tragic death of Prince Kinsky, who had acted so liberally by him in the matter of the pension. It is probable that the work of writing a Requiem Mass would have proved congenial to him. He was in the right mood for it on completion of the Mass in D, and it is rather singular that he did not undertake it instead of the Symphony. Religious questions were occupying his mind more and more in these years. It must be admitted that his religion was as peculiar to himself as was his music. He affiliated with no church, although baptized as a Catholic, and brought up in that church; but the frequent appeals to the Divinity in his journals, show his belief in, and reliance on, a higher power. He formulated his own religion as did Thoreau. The man who could write, “Socrates and Jesus were patterns to me” lived a correct life in its essentials. His asceticism, his unselfishness, the sympathy which he continually showed for others, his unworldliness, what else is this but the gist of New Testament teaching? Like a tree nourished on alien soil, which yet produces fairer and better fruit than the native ones, and becomes the parent of a new variety, this man achieved his high development of character by being a law unto himself like the anchorites of old.