What is Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” about? No one, including the musicians at this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance, seems to know for sure.
Many Beethoven fans consider this “Solemn Mass” among the greatest works in the entire repertoire, one of the most searching, bewildering and profound pieces to come from the imagination of any composer. After a decade’s absence from Symphony Hall, the ASO and Chorus will return to it Thursday and Saturday, conducted by Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles. The quartet of vocal soloists is starry: soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass-baritone Eric Owens.
At a surface level, the 70-minute Mass, sung in Latin, is a traditional statement of Christian faith — albeit by a man of unconventional piety, a cranky freethinker whose belief in God didn’t correspond to the sanctity of the Catholic Church. Unlike Masses by Schubert, his contemporary, or earlier ones by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s vision of the spiritual world is more than just personal; it is, well, strange, in the way that only late Beethoven — stone deaf for the past 15 years — can get away with. The musical vocabulary is familiar one moment, then suddenly flips psychedelic, with chaos battling order, with unusual climactic points, unexpected musical emphases and demands on the singers and instrumentalists that remain difficult to this day. As Kurt Pahlen, a German choral scholar, describes it, “It is as if Beethoven prays in another language, using a different vocabulary, yet everything is exactly as prescribed.”
Then there’s that other story buried within the “Missa Solemnis” — the one that in no way corresponds to the text.
“For all its glory and might, it doesn’t have to make sense,” says Runnicles. “There’s a spiritual bond between the ‘Missa Solemnis’ and the Ninth Symphony. He worked on them at the same time, and the ‘Missa Solemnis’ throws out questions that are answered only at the end, in the ‘Ode to Joy,’ of the Ninth Symphony.”
Runnicles points out perhaps the most inexplicable moment in the whole work: “The arrival of trumpets and drums in the Angus Dei [the final movement] is very uncomfortable, it’s an intrusion — like a violent man entering the room, as it were — and the quiet prayers for peace from the chorus become desperate shouts for peace, for civility, for a return to normal.”
Is the conductor making a connection between a great classic and current events involving a deranged man and a cyclone of political implications? “I’d say it’s like the power of myth; the myths are always relevant,” he says. “There’s a futility to it; we keep making the same mistakes and it never ends. Beethoven is grappling with the fact that we’re fallible, in the early 19th century and in the early 21st. The senseless nature of what it describes doesn’t come from the text, but the ‘Missa Solemnis’ holds a mirror up to us. It leaves an inconclusive feeling at the end.”
Perhaps for this reason, Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman has suggested that, “Generally respected, one senses, rather than loved, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ has found relatively few performances over the years, and has certainly not been a text for critical exegesis.”
Don’t say that in Atlanta.
The ASO and Chorus have recorded it under Robert Shaw, and this week’s performances will use an annotated score and orchestral parts that Shaw created in the 1990s.
It’s the sort of smashingly great chorus-and-orchestra work that Runnicles could — might? — perform the next time the ASO Chorus and Berlin Philharmonic get together.
“Conductors are terrified of it,” says 40-year-old bass-baritone Owens, an ASO regular who has sung General Groves in “Doctor Atomic” and was astonishingly effective as Alberich (photo below) this season in Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.
“Like the ‘St. Matthew’ Passion, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ is unbelievably rewarding, but it’s much more forward looking,” Owens says. “Beethoven leads you down a path, you’re going along just fine, then suddenly he takes a harmonic or a rhythmic turn that you never get used to singing. He obliterates bar lines, and when you think you know when to make an entrance, like it’s supposed to be on a strong downbeat, you’ll likely be wrong. You have to watch the conductor very closely, and even then you’re always surprised at the twists and turns in the music.”