For his final concert as Musical Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti chose Beethovan’s Missa Solemnis. He has compared  Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to “climbing Mount Everest. It is the greatest religious sermon in music. It is the Sistine Chapel of music — a work so complex that it makes every interpreter’s wrists tremble.”

The Missa solemnis in D majorOp. 123, is a solemn  mass composed by Ludwig van Beethoven from 1819 to 1823. It was first performed on 7 April 1824 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of Beethoven’s patron Prince Nikolai Galitzin

Written around the same time as his Ninth Symphony, it is Beethoven’s second setting of the Mass, after his Mass in C major, Op. 86. The work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, archbishop of Olmütz, Beethoven’s foremost patron as well as pupil and friend.

Beethoven had been working for nearly a year on Missa Solemnis. The piece is in the formal traditions of the Viennese Missa solemnis, including calling his mass by that name. Like other Viennese masses, his forces are an orchestra, chorus, and four solo singers. There are no arias; the solo parts are involved in a steady dialogue with the choir. At one point he described it as “in oratorio style.”

As Beethoven aged his thoughts turn toward the end, toward eternal things, often toward God. With death’s breath  close by, Beethoven looked to the beyond more intently. Missa solemnis is one man’s declaration of faith, in the form of the central liturgical text of the Catholic Church, and it is addressed not to faithful catholic congregants but to humanity at large.

 “Ultimately the Missa solemnis is a statement of faith and also of doubt, beyond the walls of any church. From the heart, may it go to the heart—person to person, without priests. The Missa solemnis is Beethoven’s cathedral in sound. At the end there is no triumph of faith, no triumph of peace, no triumph at all. God has not answered humanity’s prayers, its demands, its terrified pleas for peace. The drums have receded, but they are still out there, and they can come back. Beethoven’s most ambitious work, his cathedral, the one he intended to be his greatest, ends with an unanswered prayer. What, then, is the answer? …His answer was the Ninth Symphony.[i]

To watch Muti conduct the great Beethoven, in Chicago, the city of architects, is to think of a medieval Master Builder surveying the blueprints for a great cathedral he will erect. Muti builds Beethoven’s musical cathedral carefully, methodically, lovingly, bar by bar, note by note, movement by movement, depending on the bond of trust he has established with his musicians.

At the end, everyone in the hall has experienced a great work of beauty.

Father Stephen Freeman reminds us

“Beauty is a reflection of the Divine Nature. From the greatest expanse of stars to the most microscopic parts of creation, beauty is woven into all that exists. Human beings are beautiful as well – inherently so. It is for this reason that our modern penchant for the mundane, banal and empty is so striking…”

Beethoven, as interpreted by Riccardo Muti, is the antidote to modern banality and emptiness. The auditory beauty he conjures is a reflection of God. Orthodox Christian church fathers maintained that God alone is good, and goodness only finds its meaning within God. Truth is the Good presented for our understanding. Beauty is what Truth looks like.

The experience of the missa solemnis does not call forth words so much as silence. Father Freeman explains that beauty

“has the power to draw us outside of ourselves. Beauty can create within us a deep sense of peace and wholeness as we participate in it, or, conversely, create a great sense of our own emptiness. But it does not leave us.”[ii]

Maestro Muti may take his leave of Chicago, but the experiences of beauty he oversaw will remain embedded in the very fiber of the city and in the hearts and souls of those who experienced his musical cathedrals, all, like the medieval cathedrals, to the “Glory of God”.

[i] Jan Swaffod, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Mariner Books,  2014.


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