Missa solemnis (Beethoven)

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Missa solemnis
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Autograph, beginning of the Kyrie, with the famous dedication "Von Herzen..." and the performance advice "Mit Andacht" ("with devotion")
KeyD major
TextMass ordinary
DedicationRudolf of Austria
Performed7 April 1824 (1824-04-07): Saint Petersburg
  • soloists
  • choir
  • orchestra

The Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123, is a Solemn Mass composed by Ludwig van Beethoven from 1819 to 1823. It was first performed on 7 April 1824 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of Beethoven's patron Prince Nikolai Galitzin; an incomplete performance was given in Vienna on 7 May 1824, when the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were conducted by the composer.[1] It is generally considered one of the composer's supreme achievements and, along with Bach's Mass in B minor, one of the most significant Mass settings of the common practice period.[2]

Written around the same time as his Ninth Symphony, it is Beethoven's second setting of the Mass, after his Mass in C major, Op. 86. The work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, archbishop of Olmütz, Beethoven's foremost patron as well as pupil and friend. The copy presented to Rudolf was inscribed "Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!"[3] ("From the heart – may it return to the heart!")[4]


Like many masses, Beethoven's Missa solemnis is in five movements:

Tempo marking Meter Key
Assai sostenuto. Mit Andacht cut time D
Andante assai bem marcato. 3
Tempo I cut time D
Allegro vivace 3
Meno Allegro 3
Tempo I 3
B, F
Largetto 2
Dm, D, B, D
Allegro maestoso 3
Allegro, ma non troppo e ben marcato common time D
Poco piu Allegro cut time D
Presto 3
Allegro na non troppo common time B
Adagio common time Dm
Andante 3
Adagio expressivo 3
Allegro common time C
Allegro molto cut time F
Allegro ma non tropo common time F
Allegro ma non tropo; Allegro con motto 3
Grave 3
Adagio. Mit Andacht 2
Allegro pesante common time D
Presto 3
Praeludium – Sostenuto ma non troppo 3
Andante molto cantabile e non troppo mosso 12
G, C, G
Agnus Dei
Adagio common time D
Alegretto vivace (Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden) 6
Allegro assai common time B
Tempo I 6
F, D
Presto cut time D, B
Tempo I 6
B, D


  • Kyrie eleison: Perhaps the most traditional movement, the Kyrie is in a traditional ABA′ structure. The grand opening 3 D major chords motif, contrasts sharply with the 4th pianissimo response: (GOD/man) followed by humble stately choral writing in the first section and more contrapuntal vocal textures in the Christe section. The four (SATB) vocal soloists and chorus share the thematic material throughout, the former particularly in the Christe Eleison section.
  • Gloria: Quickly shifting textures and themes highlight each portion of the Gloria text, in a beginning to the movement that is almost encyclopedic in its exploration of 3
    . The movement ends with the first of the work's two fugues, on the text "In gloria Dei patris. Amen", leading into a recapitulation of the initial Gloria text and music.
  • Credo: The movement opens with a chord sequence that will be used again in the movement to effect modulations. The word "Credo" is repeatedly sung in a two-note motif, and the work thus joins the tradition of so-called "Credo Masses", including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Missa brevis in F major, K. 192 and Mass in C major, K. 257.[5] The Credo, like the Gloria, is an often disorienting, mad rush through the text. The poignant modal harmonies for the "Et incarnatus" yield to ever more expressive heights through the Crucifixus, and into a remarkable, a cappella setting of the "Et resurrexit" that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the closing fugue on "Et vitam venturi saeculi" that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire, when the subject returns at doubled tempo for a thrilling conclusion.
The form of the Credo is divided into four parts: (I) allegro ma non troppo through "descendit de coelis" in B; (II) "Et incarnatus est" through "Resurrexit" in D; (III) "Et ascendit" through the Credo recapitulation in F; (IV) fugue and coda "Et vitam venturi saeculi, amen" in B.
  • Sanctus: Up until the Benedictus of the Sanctus, the Missa solemnis is of fairly normal classical proportions. But then, after an orchestral preludio, a solo violin enters in its highest range—representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth in a remarkably long extension of the text.
  • Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea "miserere nobis" (have mercy on us) that begins with the men's voices alone in B minor yields, eventually, to a bright D major prayer "dona nobis pacem" ("grant us peace") in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is suddenly and dramatically interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn's Missa in tempore belli), but after repeated pleas of "miserere", eventually recovers and brings itself to a close.

Scoring and music[edit]

The mass is scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, a substantial chorus, and the full orchestra. Each at times is used in virtuosic, textural, and melodic capacities. The full roster consists of 2 flutes; 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A, C, and B); 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns (in D, E, B basso, E, and G); 2 trumpets (D, B, and C); alto, tenor, and bass trombone; timpani; organ continuo; strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and basses); soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists; and mixed choir.

The writing displays Beethoven's characteristic disregard for the performer, and is in several places both technically and physically exacting, with many sudden changes of dynamic, metre and tempo. This is consistent throughout, starting with the opening Kyrie where the syllables Ky-ri are delivered either forte or with sforzando, but the final e is piano. As noted above, the reprise of the Et vitam venturi fugue is particularly taxing, being both subtly different from the previous statements of the theme and counter-theme, and delivered at around twice the speed. The orchestral parts also include many demanding sections, including the violin solo in the Sanctus and some of the most demanding work in the repertoire for bassoon and contrabassoon.

A typical performance of the complete work runs 80 to 85 minutes. The difficulty of the piece combined with the requirements for a full orchestra, large chorus, and highly trained soloists, both vocal and instrumental, mean that it is not often performed by amateur or semi-professional ensembles.


Some critics have been troubled that, as Theodor W. Adorno put it, "there is something peculiar about the Missa solemnis."[6] In many ways, it is an atypical work, and lacks the sustained thematic development that is one of Beethoven's hallmarks. The fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo align it with the work of his late period—but his simultaneous interest in the theme and variations form is absent. Instead, the Missa presents a continuous musical narrative, almost without repetition, particularly in the Gloria and Credo, the two longest movements. The style, Adorno has noted, is close to treatment of themes in imitation that one finds in the Flemish masters such as Josquin des Prez and Johannes Ockeghem, but it is unclear whether Beethoven was consciously imitating their techniques to meet the demands of the Mass text. Donald Tovey has connected Beethoven to the earlier tradition in a different way:

Not even Bach or Handel can show a greater sense of space and of sonority. There is no earlier choral writing that comes so near to recovering some of the lost secrets of the style of Palestrina. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual colour of every chord, every position, and every doubled third or discord.[7]

Michael Spitzer presents an alternative view of the historical context of Beethoven's mass composition:

Gregorian melodies, of course, continued to be used in the Mass throughout the eighteenth century; but by Beethoven's time they were relatively rare, especially in orchestral Masses. The one composer who still used them extensively is Michael Haydn, in his a cappella Masses for Advent and Lent. It is significant that in some of these he limits the borrowed melody to the Incarnatus and expressly labels it "Corale." In the Missa dolorum B. M. V. (1762) it is set in the style of a harmonized chorale, in the Missa tempore Qudragesima of 1794 note against note, with the Gregorian melody (Credo IV of the Liber Usualis) appearing in the soprano. I have little doubt that Beethoven knew such works of Michael Haydn, at that time the most popular composer of sacred music in Austria. [8]


  1. ^ Elliot Forbes (ed.), Thayer's Life of Beethoven, Princeton, 1970, vol. II, p. 908, p. 925
  2. ^ Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, preface by Willy Hess (editor). Edition Eulenburg No. 951.
  3. ^ See Beethoven: Missa solemnis, Op. 123, Kyrie; Tutzing: Schneider, 1965; facsimile ed.
  4. ^ Gutmann, Peter. "Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis". Classical Notes. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  5. ^ Stauffer, George B. (2003). Bach - The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass. p. 103. ISBN 0300099665.
  6. ^ Adorno, Theodor W. Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis. Essays On Music. University of California Press. 2002. p. 570.
  7. ^ Tovey, Donald Francis (1937). Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. London: Oxford University Press. p. 165.
  8. ^ Spitzer, Michael. Beethoven. p. 123~124.

Further reading[edit]

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