In August of 1819, Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s friend, visited the composer one afternoon to find a typical late Beethovian scene. Chaos reigned.
The composer’s two servants had quit that morning, having been screamed at the night before for falling asleep and letting dinner get cold, as it was past midnight before Beethoven emerged from his locked room for his food. The dinner dishes still lay untouched on the floor. Inside that same workroom, Schindler heard Beethoven “singing, howling, stamping. After we had been listening a long time to this almost awful scene … the door opened and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features, calculated to excite fear … confused … as if he had been in mortal combat with the whole host of contrapuntists, his everlasting enemies. I tried to calm him….”
What Schindler had come across that August was an almost mad Beethoven, in the midst of composing his Missa Solemnis, for orchestra, soloists and chorus. It would be another four years of similar effort before the piece would be completed.
The Missa Solemnis is an extraordinary work by any measure, but especially for Beethoven. One of his late works, all of which stretch the boundaries of musical form and imagination almost to the breaking point, the Missa is doubly unusual for Beethoven in that it is a setting of the traditional Catholic mass. Unusual because although nominally Catholic, Beethoven’s entire spiritual existence was dedicated to a form of what we would now call Deism – the belief in a divine Creator, and His creation, which we on Earth touch without the need for any other religious rituals, artifacts or theology. It is a thoroughly Enlightenment spirituality, which Beethoven seems to have clung to with special intensity.
That’s why, in the end, the Missa Solemnis, the setting of the traditional mass, is for Beethoven an act of spiritual rebellion. Although Beethoven believed in God the Father (although he seemed to prefer the Old Testament to the New Testament version), he replaced the notion of God the Son, dispensing perfect grace, with a vision of mankind itself. Man is at least one source of glory and grace for Beethoven, and so if Milton saw himself in Paradise Lost as “justifying the ways of God to Man,” Beethoven in the Missa Solemnis seems to have tried the opposite – justifying the ways of Man to God.
What that means is that the 80-minute mass is a work of violent extremes and limit-testing textures, with wild, complex fugues vying with choral writing right at the limits of human capability. More than once in its many furious sections, you feel as though the deaf Beethoven was trying, desperately, with all his strength, to break through to his God – to finally once again hear, and be heard. It is not a work for the faint of heart.
It is also notoriously difficult to perform. Which is why we should thank conductor Noel Edison, his Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Festival Orchestra, for having the courage to mount this important, if rarely heard, work. And by and large, on Wednesday evening the group of hundreds of musicians and singers acquitted themselves quite well. The star of the evening was the chorus itself – sharp, focused, dramatic when needed, luminous when needed, working their way through Beethoven’s extremely ungracious choral writing with verve and guts. The speedy, taxing choral fugues with which Beethoven studs the work are among the most difficult passages in all of the classical repertoire. They can easily break down, perched as they are on the edge of human capability. The Mendelssohn Choir managed them in style.
Slightly less successful was the Festival Orchestra, brought together for this performance, which accompanied the Choir. The orchestral writing in the Missa Solemnis is just as taxing as the choral, and the orchestra, while good, lacked just a bit of the polish and drama the Choir gave us. The four soloists, singing some of the least gracious parts in the repertoire, also added their lustre to the proceedings. Soprano Shannon Mercer struggled a bit with some of Beethoven’s fiercer lines, but allowed her soaring soprano to float over the entire massed forces on more than one occasion to angelic effect. I liked the deep, rich sound of Krisztina Szabo’s mezzo-soprano, which cut through the choir with a very distinctive timbre.
Same was true of Michael Colvin’s tenor, which was sharp and bright throughout. Michael Adair, the baritone, had a bit less to do, although his solo in the final Agnus Dei section was well-shaded. That Agnus Dei section – the part of the mass in which the congregation begs God to “Grant us peace” is among the most striking of the entire composition, because Beethoven scores it with trumpets, and drums, noise and fury – the fury of war. He noted in the score that he wanted this section to portray external as well as internal peace, but as the sounds of human strife, rather than divine grace, are virtually the last we hear, we realize that we have in this work a hymn to God that is nonetheless rooted firmly on Earth. It is as though Beethoven is trying to tell us that that is where true spirituality resides.