Friday, May 11, 2007

Culture Alert: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

Next weekend (May 18, 19, 20) the Milwaukee Symphony & Chorus, plus soloists, will perform the Beethoven Missa Solemnis at the Marcus Center.

Worth every dollar you have to spend to hear it. Every dollar (which doesn't have to be real much; tickets start at around $20.00 each, and there are no "bad seats" in Uihlein Hall.)

This is a large piece. The text is the Ordinary of the (Catholic) Mass; Beethoven wrote it for the installation of some Duke or other--but he kinda missed that deadline--

Text, Text, Text!! You really should get familiar with the text before you hear Beethoven's take on it. Then you'll understand what he did, and he did a lot.

For those of you who want to watch singers sweat, pay particular attention to the fugue on the "Et Vitam Venturi" just before the end of the Credo of the Mass.

And I mean "sweat."

Beethoven had a well-deserved reputation for using the human voice as though it were an instrument, and this fugue is his capstone achievement in that regard. It's (arguably) the most difficult choral fugue ever written. The text? "...and life everlasting." The fugue describes the multitude of souls striving to attain it.

But when he gets to the end of the fugue and moves to the conclusion with those stretto "et vitam" followed by the assuring "Amen", with the long orchestral upward-moving scales, he describes the peace and tranquility of those who believed, succeeded, and understand. (Think of St. Paul's "I have run the race...")

The Sanctus begins quietly--almost as though one were distant from the heavenly choirs who are singing it (the text is from the OT: "k'dosh, k'dosh, k'dosh") and grows in volume and intensity as he gets to the "Hosanna"--the excitement of that short fugue is almost orgasmic.

The next "Hosanna", in the Benedictus section, stands in remarkable contrast to the one in the Sanctus. It's calm, affirming--peaceful.

Taken as a whole, the Sanctus/Benedictus also point out the liturgical action of the Mass which would ordinarily occur during their performance. The high point of the liturgical section is the Consecration--so the first "Hosanna" is sung just before that event, and the second is sung long after--accounting for the difference. Many artists showed angels being present at the altar during the Consecration--so their arrival and departure is represented by the louder, then softer "Hosannas."

The Kyrie and the Agnus Dei are petitions, and sound like it; they are not elaborate, but are heartfelt, particularly the plea for peace ("dona nobis pacem") which concludes the work.

But the Gloria!

If you don't know from glory, you will after you've heard this realization. It's in D Major, the key of joy (like the 9th Symphony's choral movement.) It begins with an ascending scale--and ends with another mighty fugue on "in gloria Dei Patris." And then he pulls the trick I like the most: ending with an almost-shouted GLORIA!! that has no orchestra underneath it. Just voices--the first musical instrument, and the only one given to every human being.

The Sunday concert is a matinee for those of you with younger ones who should hear this.

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