T HAS LONG been fashionable in music history textbooks to speak of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as a purely artistic statement that, to be blunt, uses the texts of the Catholic Mass as a convenient springboard for musical experimentation and an idiosyncratic expression of a wholly subjective faith.
That Beethoven was not, in every respect, a practicing orthodox Catholic is probably, at this point in time, indisputable. Nevertheless, do we not discern in his music, as in many of his spoken or written comments, a profound Catholic mysticism? No unbeliever, no denier of the faith, could produce such music. Listen to the work of an urbane atheist, Fauré’s Requiem. It is magnificent in architecture, achingly beautiful in its melodies and harmonies. But it has all the subtle worldliness of a French salon. Listen, in contrast, to Duruflé’s Requiem. While it shares some of those romantic aesthetic traits, it belongs to an entirely different plane of being and living. And so, I would argue, does Beethoven’s Mass.
A commentator in his notes on the Missa Solemnis interprets the rapid-fire enunciation of articles of the Creed as a sign that Beethoven wished to emphasize sheer force of belief, the psychological affirmation “CREDO!,” rather than the orthodoxy of a given set of beliefs. But there is something slightly precipitous about this judgment. Haydn, a man whose lifelong adherence to the Catholic faith no one doubts, does much the same thing in his setting of the Creed in the Missa Sancti Nicolai, Hob. 22:6.
Also, some people have said that the Credo zips through the last part of the creed because Beethoven was not concerned to emphasize particular dogmas but only a blind profession of faith “in all of it,” taken as a kind of romantic blur of belief in the Transcendent. But this too cannot be sustained by a careful listening to the movement. Beethoven devotes exquisite attention to the central articles of the faith—the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, bringing out the character of each in very different and decisive sections—and subsumes the rest of the creed under these mysteries, which are, in fact, the causes of the other mysteries. The Church is the extension in time of the Incarnation; the forgiveness of sins is implied in the Passion; the resurrection of the body is contained, in promise, within the resurrection of Christ. From this angle, the repetitions of the word ‘credo’ seem rather to be the joyful eruption of a thankful faith, the ecstatic affirmations of a heart overflowing with love—a constantly renewed acknowledgment that all these mysteries, which are so many mercies to mankind, have been made possible by the great revelation of God’s Love, encapsulated in the central truths of the Faith.
Then there is the “problem” of the Benedictus, which serves as counterbalance to the Praeludium. I think we are glimpsing here the contrast of the unbloody renewal of Calvary’s bloody sacrifice with the spiritual fruits of peace, consolation, and mercy it brings. The silence of the Roman Canon at this point in the Mass, the intimacy of the death of Christ which is the paradoxical consummation of his nuptial union with the Church, suggests a clue as to why Beethoven placed the most hushed and lyrical music of the work at precisely this liturgical point. Although the Mass was not designed for liturgical use—at any rate, by the time Beethoven finished it, it had become a personal testimony of faith and fine art, like Bach’s Mass in B Minor—we must always bear in mind the liturgical context that would never have been absent from Beethoven’s mind, as for any Catholic composer living in a thoroughly Catholic culture.
There is, of course, when all is said and done, the undying freshness, ever-surprising novelty, and truly exquisite pathos of Beethoven’s music. I remember a concert in Washington, D.C., in which Sir Neville Mariner splendidly conducted Beethoven’s Seventh, and I was given the grace to hear it as if it had just emerged from the composer’s mind. What elation, what shock, what magic there must have been in the ears of those who first listened to his music! To the man living in the early nineteenth century, Beethoven must have come across the way Arvo Pärt does to me today: music wondrous, captivating, revolutionary, hitherto inconceivable.