HAVE A CERTAIN fondness for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and some readers may even recall that I wrote about the Catholic character of this work some time ago on this blog (see here). It is not my favorite setting of the Mass texts by a long shot (the palm, in my book, would go either to Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, Bruckner’s Mass No. 2, or Pärt’s Berliner Messe), but it has always remained, for me, a fascinating amalgamation of humanism and simple faith, an intricate microcosm and elevated expression of the peculiar genius of this revolutionary composer.
Once, when listening to the Missa Solemnis, I noticed that its number in Beethoven’s catalog, Opus 123, corresponds to the locus of the Five Ways of Saint Thomas, 1.2.3 (that is, the first part, second question, third article). Moreover, Beethoven assigns to the work as a whole the key of D Major―D for DEUS, to whom the work as a whole is expressly directed, since it is a prayer from beginning to end, an idealized accompaniment to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which perfect worship is given to the Father by the Son. Thus, a mystical correspondence is obtained between the five movements and the five arguments.
1. The Kyrie and its manifold echoes are like the First Way’s tracing back of effects of motion to their distant and less perceptible causes, and thence to the very first, the Unmoved Mover. The soloists represent the higher and more powerful causes, the chorus the lower and more evident.
2. The Gloria, with its great power and forcefulness, is a dramatic image of efficient causality as such, to which the Second Way is devoted. The powerful fugues and fugal sections are like the levels or layers of causality, one on top of the other, all based upon and testifying to a primal idea or motive (“motif”) that gives them the power to harmonize or cooperate towards a common end.
3. The Credo has often been considered a brash exhibition of Beethoven’s anti-doctrinal pietism, since the articles of the creed are set in rather hurried phrases while the word “Credo” is repeated again and again, as if to say: “Don’t bother too much about the details, the crucial thing is just to believe―believe in something divine, that’s the crux of it.” But one might read the movement differently. The very basis of the truth of all the articles of faith is God’s own nature, His authority, His unspeakable power. And this is precisely the object of our “credo”: I believe that God is God, that He is who He says He is, that He can do all things. In this way, the setting of the Credo highlights the relationship between divine necessity and the mere possibility of all other things that flow from His sovereignly free will, made known to us only by a revelation to which we confidently reply: Credo. In this, one glimpses a correspondence between the Credo and the Third Way.
4. The Sanctus, with its angelic and lofty tone, gestures towards the “Platonic” Fourth Way, the way of manifesting God’s existence from the beauty, nobility, goodness, or any perfection found in things―yet found in them by being caused in them, since creatures are not competent to endow themselves with these perfections. Creatures, having been given the fundamental perfection of being, work to build up still other perfections, but inasmuch as the creature, qua creature, is in potency, the actuality it possesses must be ultimately derived from a source that is potential in no way and altogether actual. The song of the heavenly host, as Beethoven reproduces it, captures this downpour of perfections from their celestial font.
5. The Agnus Dei is suggestive of the argument from divine governance. The tragic tone with which this movement begins and the triumphant glorious conclusion reminds us of the mystery of God’s rulership over the universe, which permits evil (hence the peccata, and the consequent miserere nobis) in order to draw forth a greater good, often in ways we cannot see or ever do see in this life (dona nobis pacem). The rich, intricate, and intertwining harmonies of this movement, and its continual dialoguing between soloists and chorus, are, in their own way, a sensible image of the hierarchical structure of the cosmos, where lower and higher are mutually related for the good of each, where the one and the many are reconciled in the service of charity, and where all things by their very nature strive for the good.
One final note on the Credo of the Missa Solemnis. How could anyone who listens to the “Crucifixus” or the “Passus et sepultus,” or the resplendent “Resurrexit”―all the more forceful from its homophonic brevity―ever think that Beethoven was not a believer? Perhaps he was no orthodox Catholic, but the Catholic faith, its creed, its sacraments, was deep in his bones; it shapes every phrase of this great work. The lengthy final section of the Credo, from “Resurrexit” onwards, is a testimony of faith in the accomplishments of the crucified Christ whom Beethoven lovingly contemplates in the middle section. It is through the death of Christ that the contrapuntal credos of the final section, expressing the constant exercise of the virtue of faith, are made possible.