My exercise in hyperbolic analysis continues with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (Op 123), specifically the Benedictus. Written between 1819-23, the mass was first performed in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1824. It’s part of the composer’s late period that produced a series of stupendous masterpieces such as the 9th Symphony, the Diabelli Variations. the Hammerklavier Sonata, and the final five string quartets.
Written as a commission by Archduke Rudolf of Austria , the Emperor’s youngest son and a pupil of Beethoven, it marked the composer’s return to large scale orchestral writing – from 1812 to 1819 Beethoven had produced mainly chamber music. It is one of the composer’s supreme achievements. Among large scale liturgical music only Bach’s B-minor Mass and Verdi’s Requiem Mass are in the same rarified tonal atmosphere. Beethoven’s famous inscription “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart – may it return to the heart!”) encapsulates his thinking and emotions about this piece. Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon called it a work so intense, heartfelt and original that it nearly defies categorization.
While the whole piece is never less than exalted, the Benedictus is especially moving. The entrance of the violin, accompanied by flutes, is meant to indicate the materialization of Christ at the altar. The dialogue for solo violin and solo quartet that follows is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt slow movements in all of Beethoven. In the marvelous words of Robert Shaw, “the Benedictus is the vast, timeless repose towards which the Gloria and
the Credo have been rushing.” From the anonymous Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) Missa solemnis, op 123. The article is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to go into greater detail about this sublime music.
Of course, Beethoven’s mass has been recorded many times. The performance from which this version of the Benedictus is taken was lead by Leonard Bernstein in 1978. He conducted Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The soloists were Edda Moser, soprano; Hanna Schwarz, mezzo-soprano; René Kollo, tenor; and Kurt Moll, bass. The chorus was Grosser Rundfunkchor Hilversum N.O.S.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of
the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
A solo violin enters in its highest range—representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth in a remarkably long extension of the text. The soloists and then the chorus join the violin. The effect is beyond words. Beethoven allows the listener to experience, like Moses, a holy land that he otherwise cannot enter.