Among the many celebrated works of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Missa Solemnis is perhaps his most mysterious. The composer himself regarded it as his greatest composition, a culmination of his life-long desire to join music and philosophy. But compared to well-known works like his Third, Fifth, Sixth, or Ninth Symphonies, the Missa Solemnis has garnered comparatively little acclaim.
In an article on NPR.org in 2006, Jan Swafford called the Missa Solemnis “…the greatest piece never heard.” In fact, performances have been particularly rare in Denver, where it has been presented on only three prior occasions by the Colorado Symphony: March 25, 1945, March 13-15, 1978, and June 7, 2007. In comparison, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been programmed 16 times during that same period.
The reason for this discrepancy is due in large part to the sheer difficulty of the work, requiring an almost superhuman effort on the part of the chorus. But much of the power of the work lies in that struggle and the joy of obstacles overcome.
This hidden gem debuted in 1824, the same years as his Ninth Symphony. In fact, they premiered in back-to-back months — the Missa Solemnis in April and the Ninth Symphony in May. The two works are truly companion pieces, shedding light on Beethoven’s spiritual worldview — where the “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth is a hymn to humanity, the Missa Solemnis is a Hymn to God.
Beethoven himself had a profound belief in God, but his faith was more spiritual and less dictated by religious dogma. Though born a Roman Catholic he had no interest in organized religion. In his mind, God was simply too pervasive, too omnipotent, to be encapsulated by mere human ceremonies.
Through these two works, Beethoven makes a plea for humankind to genuflect before God, while simultaniously imploring humanity to turn towards one another for answers to life’s many obstacles. The path to peace, he suggests, is bestowed not from above, but from within each and every human being.
Perhaps the French composer, theorist, and teacher Vincent d’Indy encapsulated the Missa Solemnis best when he wrote, “We stand in the presence of one of the greatest masterworks in the realm of music.” This is a work that rightly resides in the same rarified air as the much revered Ninth Symphony.
Don’t miss your chance to see this once-in-a-generation performance featuring the Colorado Symphony and Chorus at Boettcher Concert Hall on February 21-23, 2020. For more information, please click here.