Beethoven's music: John Suchet explores the Missa Solemnis

One of Beethoven’s most daunting works, Missa Solemnis was described by a composer and critic more than a century ago as one of the greatest masterworks in the realm of music.

Beethoven composed Missa Solemnis for the enthronement of his great friend and pupil Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop of Olmütz – completing it three years after the enthronement ceremony.

Beethoven was not a religious man – there is no anecdotal evidence of his ever having chosen to attend a church service – but in his final years he did become deeply spiritual. This work – one of only three overtly religious works in his entire output, along with the oratorio Christus am Ölberge [Christ on the Mount of Olives] and an earlier setting of the Mass – is the most representative of that spirituality.

It is therefore a deeply personal expression. It was on the manuscript of this work that Beethoven wrote the words which I have used as a quotation at the front of this book:From the heart – may it return to the heart.

There is nevertheless a theatricality to the Missa Solemnis that has led many commentators to suggest that it is more appropriate to the concert hall than the church. With four soloists and a choir, some have even suggested it should be regarded more as a short opera than anything else.

The two moments that set it apart are the solo violin throughout the Benedictus, hovering above the orchestra in a way that turns the movement almost into a mini-concerto; and the sounds of war which Beethoven inserts into the prayer for divine peace in the Dona, trumpets and timpani playing for all they are worth.

Interestingly Beethoven wanted to premiere the Missa along with the newly completedNinth Symphony at the concert in the Kärntnertor theatre on 7 May 1824, but the censor intervened, banning the performance of a religious work in a concert hall. A compromise was reached in which only three movements of the Missa were performed (along with the Ninth). Just shows how wrong the censor was.

The Missa Solemnis stands alone in Beethoven’s output. A modern critic wrote: To those for whom Beethoven’s music is an important reason for living, the Missa Solemnis belongs at the centre of their experience – a work to respect, certainly, but still more to love.