The Kennedy Center

Missa Solemnis

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123

by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.  He began work on his Missa Solemnis in 1819 and completed the work in late 1822 or early 1823.  The first performance took place in St. Petersburg on April 7, 1824.

            The Missa Solemnis runs about 90 minutes in performance.  Beethoven scored it for four vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ, and strings.

Hearing the Missa Solemnis is always an extraordinary experience-and the enormous difficulty of the score guarantees that live encounters will never be too frequent.  This work shows what can happen when a genius consciously decides to outdo himself, and create an all-encompassing work that expresses the composer's profound spirituality and realizes a musical vision never previously formulated.

            Beethoven, though raised as a Roman Catholic, was not a regular church-goer.  Nevertheless, he was familiar with the liturgy, and was well aware that writing sacred composition represented the highest goal to which a composer could aspire.  He admired Handel's Messiah, Haydn's Masses and oratorios and, above all, Mozart's Requiem; yet he himself had attempted sacred composition only twice.  But neither the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803), nor the Mass in C (1807) could be said to have been very successful.  The composer keenly felt that he had yet to reach the summit of his art in the realm of liturgical music.

            It was an external circumstance that provided the initial impulse for what turned out to be one of the crowning masterpieces of Beethoven's later years.  The composer's favorite pupil, the Archduke Rudolph (the younger brother of Emperor Franz I), was going to become Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc, Czech Republic), and the solemn Mass had been intended for performance at the installation ceremony.  But Beethoven missed the deadline; in fact, the Mass wasn't finished until two years after the event it was supposed to celebrate.

            Of course, Beethoven knew that the Mass was one of the greatest works he had ever composed.  And he was prepared to milk it for all it was worth:  he conducted parallel negotiations with several publishers, breaking promises and going behind the back of one firm to get a better deal with another.  The full score was finally printed by Schott in Mainz, but not until 1827, the year of Beethoven's death.  In 1823, the composer had taken subscription orders to have manuscript copies prepared expressly for some of his most influential admirers-including Prince Nikolai Galitzin, for whom he had also written three of his late string quartets.  It was Galitzin who arranged for the world premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg in April 1824.  In Vienna, only three of the five movements were ever heard during Beethoven's lifetime.

            There are strong indications that Beethoven experienced a kind of spiritual awakening during the last decade of his life, even if this did not take the form of religious practice.  As a true child of the Enlightenment, he apprehended Divinity through Nature and Reason, which didn't make his spirituality any less powerful or transcendent.  In the Missa solemnis, he wanted to communicate the experience to the world; as he wrote in a letter, ?My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners."  In order to achieve this aim, Beethoven held nothing back.  The vocal parts (not only those of the soloists but the chorus as well) are fiendishly difficult; harmonically and structurally, Beethoven's music was never more complex than here.  Yet, listening to the Missa, one understands that it took nothing less to transmit the composer's vision to the audience.  A fiercely individual free thinker grappling with the mysteries of God, death and afterlife-the stakes have never been higher in a piece of music, and the composer had to make use of every expressive means at his disposal.

This insistence on communication (or communion) with the audience is apparent from the inscription on the first page of the score:  ?From the heart:  may it reach the heart."  Musically, this fervent wish finds expression in the fact that most of the themes in the work are not based on song-like, symmetrical phrases but are, instead, short, gesture-like utterances with an urgency and immediacy seldom found in Beethoven's earlier works.  The setting of the opening word of the Mass, ?Kyrie" (?Lord"), sung on a single repeated note by the chorus, is a good example for this eminently dramatic approach to the text.  It is only after the tone has been set by these powerful single chords that a gentler melodic figure is introduced on ?eleison" (?have mercy").  The more isolated gestures contrast with a more continuous melodic flow in the ?Christe," begun by the four soloists; the sustained motion is generated by polyphonic imitation. 

            The Gloria and Credo movements always present composers with special challenges because of the great length of their texts.  Many composers have broken up these texts into several independent movements to make them more manageable, but Beethoven opted for a single uninterrupted musical statement, unified by a recapitulation of the opening ?Gloria" theme at the very end, and of the ?Credo" theme numerous times throughout the movement.  In between those motivic restatements, we have a wide variety of motifs in different keys, tempos and orchestrations, as dictated by the emotional content of the individual words and lines.  Starting and ending with an ecstatic praise of God, the ?Gloria" passes through moments of introspection and even temporary despair:  from the words ?Gratias agimus tibi,"  the initial exuberance gives way to more subdued feelings as God, as the solemn proclamation about God is followed by a direct address of God (?We give you thanks").  After a brief return to the original ?Gloria" mood, we reach the heart of the movement with ?Qui tollis" (?You who take away the sins of the world"), where the tempo drops to Larghetto and the quartet of soloists intones an intimate plea for mercy.  With ?Quoniam" (?For you alone are holy"), private prayer once again changes to public worship.  Tradition demanded that the ?Gloria" movement end with a fugue, but in the present case, the music takes a dramatic turn when, after an emphatic restateme nt of the theme in slow motion (augmentation, to use the technical term), the excitement reaches fever pitch as the tempo suddenly increases.  It is at the climactic moment of this development that the theme from the beginning of the movement returns (in a faster tempo than the first time), closing the circle at the end of a fascinating spiritual journey.

            The next movement, the ?Credo," is another spiritual journey, even more complex than the previous one.  The abstract theological nature of its text has always represented a major challenge to composers; the dogmas of the Catholic Church, as codified in the Nicene Creed from the year 325, do not lend themselves naturally to musical treatment.  Beethoven set the first word, ?Credo" (?I believe") to a short and pithy motif that serves as the glue holding the entire movement together.  From the start, the I receives at least as much emphasis as the believe, yet there is definite shift at the words qui propter nos homines (?who for us humans...") where the music suddenly turns gentle and lyrical to illustrate the descent from heaven to earth.  As with the ?Gloria," the ?Credo" centers around a slow middle section which, in this case, begins with the words ?Et incarnatus est" (?And He became incarnate").  The birdsong-like high trills of the flute during this section depict the Holy Spirit, often represented in paintings as a dove.  The ?homo" in ?Homo factus est" (?he was made man") once again receives special treatment, before we reach the most tragic part of the movement with the mention of Crucifixion.  The musical image of Resurrection, immediately following, maximizes dramatic contrast and leads directly to the recapitulation, inevitable here because of the reappearance of the word ?Credo" in the text.  Here Beethoven rather quickly passes over a few articles of faith (especially the reference to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church) to arrive at another major choral fugue on the words ?Et vitam venturi saeculi" (?And to life ever after").  The fugue culminates in an extremely elaborate treatment of the word ?Amen," including a cadenza for the four solo singers resembling an analogous moment near the end of the Ninth Symphony.

            To Beethoven, the ?Sanctus," the solemn proclamation of God's holiness was not a matter of exuberant fanfares; he approached it, rather, like a mystery, with some rather unusual harmonic progressions and a choral recitative where the singers seem almost tongue-tied in their awe before the incomprehensible.  Then, at ?Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua" (?Heaven and earth are full of your glory"), a true celebration begins, but-after a brief, ecstatic ?Osanna"-we come to another moment of introspection, perhaps the most powerful of all:  the celebrated ?Benedictus," with its famous violin solo.  This exquisite movement is introduced by a dark and subdued orchestral ?Preludium" after which the violin solo enters, on a high note, ?like a ray of light," to quote musicologist William Kinderman's formulation from his beautiful Beethoven monograph.  After so many harmonically complex passages earlier in the Mass, the pure G major sonorities of the Benedictus are a perfect expression of the solace brought to the world by the arrival of ?Him who comes in the name of the Lord."  Following the ?Benedictus," the liturgy calls for a repeat of the ?Osanna," but contrary to traditional usage, Beethoven did not repeat the ecstatic music of the first ?Osanna."  Instead, unwilling to break the spell cast by the ?Benedictus," he kept its the tempo and character all the way to the end.

            The monumental work is crowned by the ?Agnus Dei," in which a gentle supplication for mercy intensifies into a fervent plea for peace.  Opening with a bass solo in the lowest register of the low male voice, Beethoven gradually brings in all the voices and finally, at the words ?Dona nobis pacem" (?Grant us peace"), introduces one of the most memorably melodies of the entire composition.  (At this point, Beethoven wrote into the score:  ?An appeal for inner and outer peace.")  But our tribulations are not quite over yet.  To place his vision of peace into sharper relief, Beethoven twice conjures up images of war.  An ominous drumroll and distant trumpet calls threaten that vision, and the recitative of the soloists sounds ?anxious" (ängstlich), according to Beethoven's instruction in the score.   The second time (following an extended orchestral interlude), the noises of war provoke a positively terrified response from the entire chorus, and the ?Dona nobis pacem" sounds less like a plea  than a demand.  The work concludes with a restatement of the great ?peace" theme, but the menacing drum-rolls persist almost to the very end.  In the words of William Kinderman,   ?The end of the Mass is left ambiguous, since a prayer for peace is far from being its fulfillment.  In the Missa solemnis the ultimate goal for human aspiration is located in a transcendental quest."  Let us hope that some day, this quest will bring us the ?inner and outer peace" that Beethoven prayed for.





Kyrie eleison.

Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison.


Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.



                                                                    2. GLORIA


Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te,

adoramus te, glorificamus te.

Gratias agimus tibi

propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,

Deus pater omnipotens.

Domine Fili unigenite,

Jesu Christe.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,

Filius Patris.


Qui tollis peccata mundi,

miserere nobis.

Qui tollis peccata mundi,

suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dextram Patris,

miserere nobis!


Quoniam tu solus sanctus,

tu solus Dominus,

tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.

Cum Sancto Spiritu

in gloria Dei Patris, amen.


Glory to God in the highest.

And on earth peace to people of good will.

We praise you, we bless you,

we worship you, we glorify you.

We give you thanks

for your great glory.

Lord God, heavenly King,

God, Father omnipotent.

Lord, the only-begotten Son,

Jesus Christ most high.

Lord God, Lamb of God,

Son of the Father.


You who take away the sins of the world,

have mercy upon us.

You who take away the sins of the world,

receive our prayer.

You who sit at the right hand of the Father,

have mercy upon us.


For you alone are holy,

you alone are the Lord,

you alone most high, Jesus Christ.

With the Holy Spirit,

in the glory of God the Father. Amen.



                                                                     3. CREDO


Credo in unum Deum,

patrem omnipotentem,

factorem coeli et terrae,

visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,

Filium Dei unigenitum,

et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula,

Deum de Deo,

lumen de lumine,

Deum verum de Deo vero,

genitum, non factum,

consubstantialem Patri,

per quem omnia facta sunt,

qui propter nos homines

et propter nostram salutem

descendit de coelis.


Et incarnatus est

de Spiritu Sancto

ex Maria Virgine,

et homo factus est.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis

sub Pontio Pilato,

passus et sepultus est.


Et resurrexit tertia die

secundum scipturas,

et ascendit in coelum,

sedet ad dexteram Patris,

et iterum venturus est cum gloria

judicare vivos et mortuos,

cujus regni non erit finis.


Et in Spiritum Sanctum,

Dominum et vivificantem,

qui ex Patre Filioque procedit,

qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur

et conglorificatur,

qui locutus est per prophetas,

et unam sanctam catholicam

et apostolicam ecclesiam.

Confiteor unum baptisma

in remissionem peccatorum,

et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.

et vitam venturi saeculi, amen.


I believe in one God,

Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth,

of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only-begotten Son of God,

born of the Father before all ages,

God of God,

light of light,

true God of true God,

begotten, not made,

being of one substance with the Father,

by whom all things were made.

Who for all humanity,

and for our salvation,

came down from heaven.


And became incarnate

by the Holy Spirit

of the Virgin Mary

and was made a man.

He was also crucified for us

under Pontius Pilate,

suffered and was buried.


And on the third day he rose again,

according to the scriptures,

and ascended into heaven,

and sits at the righthand of the Father,

and he shall come again with glory

to judge the living and the dead,

whose kingdom shall have no end.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord and life-giver,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son

together are worshipped and glorified,

who spoke through the prophets,

and I believe in one holy catholic

and apostolic Church.

I acknowledge one baptism

for the remission of sins,

and I look for the Resurrection of the Dead,

and life everlasting. Amen.





Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,

Dominus Deus Sabaoth!

Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Osanna in excelsis!


Benedictus qui venit

in nomine Domini.

Osanna in excelsis!


Holy, holy, holy,

Lord God of hosts!

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest!


Blessed is He that comes

in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest!





Agnus Dei,

qui tollis peccata mundi,

miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei,

qui tollis peccate mundi,

dona nobis pacem.


Lamb of God,

you who take away the sins of the world,

have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God,

you who take away the sins of the world,

grant us peace.