Concert Notes

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

Notes by TŌN flutist Chase McClung

Missa solemnis was composed in honor of Beethoven’s friend Archduke Rudolph’s enthronement as Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc) in Moravia. However, several clues point toward the work being more than just a congratulations to a dear friend. Missa solemnis is one of only three overtly religious works in Beethoven’s repertoire. Beethoven was raised Catholic, but did not attend church until his final years, and in a private letter to the archduke, the composer wrote “on Him alone I place my reliance and hope that in all my manifold miseries the All-Highest will not let me perish utterly.” The undeniable religious context of the mass, coupled with Beethoven’s impending death, suggest Missa solemnis is more of a declaration of the composer’s deepened spirituality as he neared the afterlife. The mass was composed just after his herculean Hammerklavier Sonata and alongside the Ninth Symphony, giving important context to the legacy Beethoven hoped to leave with the piece. 

Missa solemnis is written in a typical five-movement mass structure, consisting of a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The piece is structured around the key of D major, a key commonly used to represent the glory of God. Interestingly, Beethoven rarely wrote in the relative minor key of B minor due to its stark nature, but this tonal center appears in the opening of the Agnus Dei. Another interesting section of the mass occurs in the Praeludium between the Sanctus and Benedictus, where Beethoven’s scoring alludes to the timbre of an organ, which would typically be played in his day during a full mass after the Sanctus. 

In the opening of the manuscript for the piece, Beethoven inscribed the words “From the heart—may it go again—to the heart.” Missa solemnis captures Beethoven’s love for God and the acceptance of his untimely death.