*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 7th of April 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Part of what bridges the sacred and secular during the Christmas season is the music- we have the jolly secular songs about snow and Santa and the like. Then we have the rich hymnody of the Wesleys and others who help us focus on the incarnation and its implications.
Despite being as holy a season like Christmas, Easter doesn’t get the same musical treatment. At least from the secular perspective- or when it comes to listening passively to pieces written for the occasion. For the past few decades, I have made it a practice to listen to choral masses- not always the most accessible music to those who don’t regularly listen to orchestral or choral music. Still, I have always enjoyed the Missa Pro Defunctis from Palestrina and the Mass in B minor from J.S. Bach (jump straight to the Dona Nobis Pacem at the end for a jolt).
But friends, I have an assignment for you; check out Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This piece has entered my “Lenten/Holy Week/Easter” listening rotation, and I thought, on the anniversary of the debut of the Mass on this the 7th of April in 1824, I would tell you something about it.
The Missa Solemnis is one of Beethoven’s later pieces- written around the time of his 9th Symphony and when he had gone almost completely deaf.
The quick facts put Beethoven between 1770 and the 1820s- he is from Bonn but came to fame in Austria. Mozart had previously been the wunderkind challenging the previous medieval and baroque composers (like Bach).
Beethoven was famously tempestuous- consider his letter to an “Immortal Beloved” that was never sent, his unkempt appearance- his Heiligenstadt Testament written to his brothers in which he contemplates suicide in the face of despair over his hearing loss… this isn’t the eccentric yet pious Bach- this is an emotional enigma.
And so, his writing of a Mass might raise some questions? Was he a Christian? As one commentator asked- was this a mass written by a religious man, or is this a mass written by a man who wants to look religious? I’ll leave the speculations about Beethoven’s faith alone- but let’s consider this Mass.
It follows the standard Mass rubric (if you are in a western high church tradition, you might be familiar with a church service that tracks some version of a Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, Credo, and Sanctus). The Mass in B minor is the baroque standard- and it is massive. Beethoven dwarfed it.
The problem with this Mass is that at 80 minutes long with a full orchestra and soloists who can push themselves beyond what Bach or Mozart would ever ask of them. There are parts of the score that the conductor has to decide whether or not to try. There are parts in the score that Beethoven essentially tells the musician- “just try and hold on.”
Before the advent of recorded music, it would likely be one of the few pieces that you hadn’t heard. It was too difficult. Take advantage of the absolutely unprecedented nature of how we get music today- if you go to the rough transcript for today’s show, I will link to the Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic version of the Gloria (HERE!).
Beethoven was famously averse to the censors of his day- in fact, he tended to not work with words because he felt he could convey similar ideas but through expression and performance (even improvised performance). Using the Mass would be a similar way to avoid the censors- Beethoven uses the words from the mass, already written for him. You can’t censor the assembly! (Although some Protestants wanted to, he had the words translated to German and appealed to Luther’s German Mass).
-pardon this small flight of fancy- but let me explain what this music does for me. I love Bach. You hear his music on every show- but his Mass in B minor is like the electric guitar of Les Paul- innovative, technically brilliant, iconic. But if Bach’s Mass is Les Paul, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is Eddie Van Halen. It’s fast and loud, and you ask: How does he do that? Is this too much? I’m enthralled and maybe a little scared. When it’s over, I’m exhausted.
Nonetheless, thanks for letting me wax on about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis- his Mass was performed for the first time, just a few days before Easter on this the 7th of April in 1824.
The Last Word for today comes from Isaiah 53 in the daily lectionary.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of April 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man still waiting for an easter version of Christmas Shoes. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who recognizes you’re not supposed to sing a Gloria during Lent. So listen on Sunday- no fasting on Sundays. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.