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Missa Solemnis: Beyond the Basics of Beethoven

The opening strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are recognisable to many, whether from a concert hall or a cartoon.  A number of listeners are familiar with his most popular Sonatas, such as the “Moonlight” or “Pathetique”.  However, those who wish to move beyond the well-trod paths of the great composer’s symphonies and sonatas should seek a deeper understanding of Beethoven through one of his most powerful works, his Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven:  Missa Solemnis

“A mighty work” is how conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn describes the piece.  Schermerhorn conducted the Nashville Symphony and Chorus on a recent Naxos recording of the Missa Solemnis, and notes that the work is “mature Beethoven”.  Indeed, every note was scrutinised and revisited by Beethoven, who spent five years composing and refining the work.  Originally conceived to mark the 1819 appointment of Beethoven’s long-supporting patron and music student, Archduke Rudolph, to the position of Archbishop and Cardinal of Olmütz, the work was not completed until a full five years later in 1824. 

Beethoven undertook the task of writing his mass with gravity and dedication, preparing for the work by studying proper liturgical form.  The resulting masterpiece, while retaining traditional movements of the ordinary of the mass (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), also contains a force of emotion that is quintessential Beethoven.  Composed in the last decade of his life, it reflects the joy and the agony of the famous composer whose deafness separated him from the rest of the world and from his own music.

However, the Missa Solemnis was a work cherished by Beethoven.  According to Schermerhorn, “ . . .once he did complete it, he was so proud of it that he wanted it to be performed all over the place,” at times campaigning for it to be performed in place of his well-loved Ninth Symphony. 

Beethoven’s magnificent Missa Solemnis is an important step in understanding the composer more fully.  This work deserves to be the next addition to your library.

Click here to listen to sample tracks of this recording.


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