Did Beethoven believe in God (2)?

Did Beethoven believe in God (2)?


norman lebrecht

March 22, 2020

Welcome to the 48th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Missa Solemnis, opus 123 (1824)

Written around the same time and with the same forces as the ninth symphony – four vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra – the Mass in D is light-years removed from Beethoven’s only previous Mass, the Mass in C. The architecture is stronger, the ambition higher, the communication more urgent, almost to the point of desperation. It’s as if Beethoven knows he has entered the final stretch of his journey and walks entirely alone in an unmapped land.

He received the commission in 1818 while at work on the Hammerklavier sonata (read more here), and composed some sections, on and off, while he was composing the ninth symphony. The ideas shared between the two works are so obvious that one to stand a pace back to remember that the two summits are opposite in their intent – one for the glory of God, the other for the untapped possibilities of mankind.

The Missa Solemnis is a dramatic work, more gripping in places than Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. It is also a work of outreach – ‘from the heart to the heart’, as Beethoven put it on his dedication page. In his fifties, lonelier than ever and in failing health, his yearning for human contact gives the Mass its universal message. That he took so long to write it is further evidence of his no-turning-back frame of mind. ‘I remember his mental excitement, wrote his friend Anton Schindler, ‘I must admit that never before and never since that time have I seen him in a similar state of removal from the world.’ At 80 to 90 minutes, it would be unendurably long were it not for its structural tautness.

A leading Beethoven scholar, Martin Cooper, calls the Missa Solemnis ‘a personal document without parallel in the history of music.’ The conductor Roger Norrington considers it ‘possibly the greatest piece ever written’. The first performance was given in St Petersburg on April 7, 1824, followed by a partial Vienna premiere a month later. Unlike the ninth symphony, the Mass in D has no political significance or designated space in the musical calendar. Performances are infrequent and each is a great occasion. The most momentous I have attended was a memorial concert to Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival.

Early recordings by Bruno Kittel (1928) and Serge Koussevitsky (1938) can be set aside on grounds of poor sound. Arturo Toscanini did not touch the work until he was in his 60s and the results are less convincing than his mastery of the ninth symphony, despite the soaring wonder that was the young Jussi Björling and the bottomless depths of Alexander Kipnis. Since you’re going to listen, go straight to the Agnus Dei. Zinka Milanov is stunning.

The abundance of great singers who converged on Vienna in the 1950s makes several mono recordings irresistible – Volkmar Andreae, for instance, with Teresa Stich-Randall, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, Julius Patzak and Gottlob Frick; or Karl Böhm with Maria Stader, Marijana Rade, Anton Dermota and Josef Greindl. A Stockholm excavation of Erich Kleiber conducting Birgit Nilsson and Jussi Björling is unmissable.

The first rounded performances were in stereo – Karajan from Vienna, Bernstein from New York. Karajan has a falutless, idiomatic grasp of the work and his singers – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Nicola Zaccaria – are immaculate. His pacing is so impressive, no over-dramatising, no longueurs. For me, this is Karajan at his peak, before the peacock in him takes over.

Bernstein plays it by the book, and it’s not a book he got read at bedtime. There’s a hint of Broadway in some of the big numbers and a very large dose of Handel in the finale, none the worse for that. The soloists are almost top-drawer – Carol Smith, Richard Lewis, Eileen Farrell, Kim Borg – but they get swamped by the Westminister Choir. Bernstein’s subsequent recordings lack the fizz of this effort.

Many swear by John Eliot Gardiner in this work; I’m more inclined to swear at him. Try as I might, I canlt find a coherent line among Gardiner’s sometimes fascinating impulsiveness. His second attempt, in 2012, is even jerkier. For a considered, historically informed reading, stick with the reasoned, consensual Norrington or the devout, organic Harnoncourt.

Georg Solti in Chicago conceives the mass as a struggle between life and death, drawing interpretations of heavenly tenderness from his singing quartet – Lucia Popp, Yvonne Minton, Mallory Walker and Gwynne Howell. Solti is sometimes criticised for unevenness of line, but here he is a master bricklayer, building a great mansion.

Not to be ignored in the Missa Solemnis is Beethoven’s debt to Georg Frideric Handel, especially to Messiah of which he made a special study before composing the Mass. Some of the influence is overt. In the concluding Dona nobis pacem you will hear the unmistakable tune of ‘And He shall reign forever and ever’ from the Hallelujah Chorus. Other Handel citations can be traced in the Gloria. Beethoven named Handel on several occasions as ‘the greatest composer that ever lived’, saying he ‘would uncover my head, and kneel down at his tomb.’ He also referred to the Missa Solemnis as ‘the greatest work that I have composed thus far.’

It is Handel’s temperate influence that tones down the Missa Solemnis from high-church Austrian Catholicism to a more unifying message and raises it to a high plateau of cooperation across musical generations, a place above mere doctrinal divisions.

The expert Handelian Colin Davis conveys this connection better than most in his 1977 London Symphony recording with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Patricia Payne, Robert Tear and Robert Lloyd as soloists, let down by a slightly underwhelming chorus in the cavernous Walthamstow Town Hall.

So, coming down to final choices, I’d put the early Karajan and Bernstein in the bag, along with Norrington and Solti. A 2015 Bernard Haitink concert from Munich should also command your attention. It is the distillation of a liftetime’s Beethoven performance with a crop of modern singers who can hold their own with the best – Elisabeth Kulman, Genia Kühmeier, Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Mark Padmore.


  • MusicBear88 says:

    Karajan/Berlin with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, and Walter Berry is my go-to and has been for years. There’s a live Levine/Vienna with Cheryl Studer, Jessye Norman, Plácido Domingo, and Kurt Moll that is also very tight. I find both of Gardiner’s traversals frustrating for various reasons, but his habit of casting tenors with smaller voices puzzles me to no end. I like James Gilchrist quite a lot as an Evangelist, but that first “Kyrie!” needs to soar out and his just… doesn’t.

    Karajan also did it at Salzburg in 1959 with a young Leontyne Price, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, and Nicola Zaccaria. If the sound were better, it would likely blow all others out of the water, but unfortunately it’s a mono-radio broadcast tape.

  • Roberto says:

    I don’t know this Bernstein recording in NY. I am very fond of his recording in the late 70s in Amsterdam with Edda Moser, Rene Kollo, Kurt Moll and Hanna Schwarz.

    I also enjoy Karajan recording with Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Wunderlich and Walter Berry.

    Writing all these names here gives me goosebumps.

    • Thomas Varley says:

      It may be a minority opinion but I also like the Bernstein/Concertgebouw very much and also like the Toscanini studio recording from late in the NBC years.

  • MezzoLover says:

    To Norman’s list of final choices I must add the splendid 1977 live performance by Rafael Kubelik (also from Munich) with Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier and John Shirley-Quirk. It has tremendous intensity and concentration, the most exhilarating Gloria one could ever hope to hear, and both Donath and Fassbaender in their absolute prime.

  • SK says:

    Surely we cannot overlook the justly famous Otto Klemperer-Philharmonia recording, a lofty performance of nobility and grandeur, widely praised by critics and music lovers (such as I) alike–a classic.

    A sidelight in the history of musical performance: that Beethoven legend and champion, Wilhelm Furtwangler, apparently never did the Missa Solemnis, for reasons I’ve never heard. Does anyone have any historical information on this strange omission?

    • Ken says:

      He declared the work to be “unperformable.” Could not find his way in. Multi has also never conducted it. Abbado?

      • Edoardo Saccenti says:

        Furtwangler did the Missa in concert, for sure in Berlin on 2 and 3 March and 2 june 1930.

        Abbado never did, Muti going to with CSO in the next season.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    What, is Klemperer unavailable on Idagio??

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It took me a very long time before I was able to fully appreciate this challenging work, while I never had any problems with late string quartets or piano sonatas. These late works of Beethoven are not less challenging to a first time listener than the works of the second Viennese school. I still have not fully come to terms with his Grosse fuge.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But the Grosse Fuge is not a truly successful work, the music bursts from the seams of the medium and would work much better for orchestra. Also, the last episode which is suddenly in a very different style refers back to other parts of the quartet for which it was to be the finale (opus 130), an effect which gets lost when performed as an independent work.

      The Missa has comparable problems, I find, with great music all over but also transitions which seem awkward, illogical, and passages which do not have very expressive thematic material. But many other passages fully compensate for this, like the beautiful and original violin solo in the Benedictus.

    • Ken says:

      Excellent comment. Thank you.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    I’m not sure why Otto Klemperer is omitted, when the S-D survey of ‘Fidelio’ praised his final studio recording to the heavens. The 1951 recording with the Wiener Symphoniker is quite elusive. Generally, if one likes Klemperer’s recording of Fidelio, then the same would apply to his Philharmonia recording of the Missa Solemnis. It has much the same virtues, though I find the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ distinctly underpowered to Toscanini in 1939/40– the BBCSO and NBC concert performances. [ haven’t heard the 1935 Toscanini NYPSO performance, which is generally considered to be his finest.]

    In addition, Klemperer had the Philharmonia chorus, which to me sounds 110% committed, and of almost supreme technical assurance. Karajan’s version circa 1960 was the first recording of the Missa Solemnis I ever heard. [ Is it a typo in the article? I’m not sure whether it was recorded in Vienna or London, but it’s the Philharmonia with the Wiener Singverein.] Yes, it’s very dynamic and propulsive, though less so than Toscanini, whose balancing of the chorus to the NBC and BBC orchestras was ill-captured by the microphones.

    That said, a video of a Salzburg Festival recording from around 1979 shows a quite remarkable performance from Karajan, without much evidence of marmoreal or excessive legato phrasing from the strings and woodwinds. All in all, a real shame that Carlos Kleiber and Furtwangler especially, never got round to this work. IMHO, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei were meant for WF’s style of conducting.

  • Leporello says:

    Did Dvorak believe in mermaids, or Wagner in fairies?

  • opilec says:

    Of the numerous versions I know, the one I return to most often is Zinman. 6 minutes faster than Gardiner, his performance links the soundworld of the work more convincingly to that of late Haydn while retaining its visionary power. The pacing of the various sections, so often a pitfall even for great conductors, is entirely convincing, and the tracking is generous. The soloists are impressive too: Orgonasova, Larsson, Trost and Selig, while the Swiss Chamber Choir and Tonhalle Orchestra are expertly balanced and hugely stylish. Do try it!

  • Eyal Braun says:

    I would recommend Herbert Blomstdet’s wonderful recording with th Gewandhaus Orchestra. A marvellous version. Probably my favorite.


  • Harnoncourt says:

    most probably the only recording which
    comes close to Beethovens vision is the Salzburg live recording with Harnoncourt/COE from the 90s. listen to that to know a little about the piece.

  • Soltifan says:

    Eugen Jochum with the Concertgebouw orchestra on Philips in 1970, (Agnes Giebel, Marga Höffgen, Ernst Haefliger, Karl Ridderbusch) is the greatest recording of this piece I know. Beautifully recorded, and Ridderbusch in the Agnus Dei is beyond words.


  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    IMHO, a rather incomplete overview of the Missa’s recordings. Pivotal recording are missing, such Klemperer, Giulini, the great great recording by Tate, the last attempt by Solti in what is his last concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the last account by Harnoncourt.

    As rare may live performances be, virtually any conductor has recorded, Karajan alone 4 times (in each of them karajan at his best), plus the videos.

    Painfully we miss Abbado. Muti is going to perform it for the first time with CSO next season.

  • Crabcakes and Football says:

    There is a LPO Live recording from a BBC radio broadcast with Solti and the Edinburgh festival chorus that caught as fantastic a quartet imaginable (including Donath, Siegfried Jerusalem, and Sotin.) It’s one of those nights where you had the polish of a studio performance and the live performance has the excitement and energy you’d want from it. In particular, the tenors really let it loose on their high a entrance of “Quoniam” at the end of the Gloria and nail it with aplomb, in a way you never hear in the performance practice recordings that prefer a netuered and docile sound to real singing.
    Whether Beethoven believed it or not, the Et vitam venturi fugue and conclusion is probably the best case musically for some kind of afterlife ever composed.
    Another lovely recording that still catches fire when needed but has the technical polish, is the Shaw recording. It’s beautiful as well.

  • msc says:

    I understand that NL’s choices are limited by what is on Idagio, but I also have to advocate for Klemperer, Giulini, and Kubelik. Among period performances I strongly prefer Herreweghe on HM.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      My choices are not limted by what’s on Idagio, although that does encompass around 90 percent of all known recordings. I do, from time to time, refer to performances that are not on Idagio. I alsi frequently mention Klemps Giulini, Kubelik and everyone else, but it would be a bloody boring series if I mentioned them every time I discussed a symphonic work.

      • MWnyc says:

        Good to know you didn’t need to stick solely with what’s on Idagio!

        For period versions, you checked Gardiner and Norrington and Harnoncourt but skipped Herreweghe 1 and 2 and Suzuki?

        I like Herreweghe’s second version (on Phi) better than his first (on HM), but right now my favorite version is Daniel Reuss conducting Cappella Amsterdam and the Orchestra of the 18th Century (Glossa), with two marvelous female soloists, Carolyn Sampson and Marianne Beate Kielland.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Perhaps it is just my chinrest-centric view of the world but it does seem to me that the list of participants in a recording of the Missa Solemnis really should include the names of the violinists.

  • Louise Meelen says:

    Listening to the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven did believe in God . But not a god who belonged to a special religion. Beethoven believed in his own God.
    My favorite Missa Solemnis are: Karajan.
    Harnoncourt Concertgebouw Amsterdam 2012 Consencus Wien Rias Kammerchorus , Marlis Peters etc.
    And recent: René Jacobs with Freiburger Barock Orchester.

  • Stuart says:

    I wonder if you are passing by Toscanini a bit too fast? There are many different versions of this work conducted by Toscanini – the live recordings from Carnegie Hall in 1939 and 1940 being the best. Have you listened to the 1940 account of the score? The Pristine recording offers a very magical experience in quite good sound.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Surely these are all too long ago, and date from the time before decent recordings could be made. I really don’t understand the fetish-isation of the past when there are so many good performances recorded more recently.

      • MezzoLover says:

        Toscanini never conducted the Missa Solemnis until he turned 66, two years after he was brutally attacked by Mussolini’s Blackshirts for his defiant and courageous anti-Fascist stance. In many ways Beethoven’s masterwork became Toscanini’s personal message both as an artist and as a human being. There is a tautness and ferocity about his Missa Solemnis that transcend the limited sonics and make these performance almost timeless, be it the 1939, the 1940 or the 1953 (both the live broadcast and the studio recording made by RCA soon afterwards).

        And I disagree with your characterization of some music lovers’ partiality for older recordings. To me, older recordings like the Toscanini can often shed new light on not just more recently recorded performances, but the music itself. After all, Toscanini was born only 40 years after Beethoven’s death!

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    My two favorite recordings of MISSA SOLEMNIS are this one:


    And this one:


    • MWnyc says:

      For those who don’t want to click through, they are the Vienna Symphony under Andrae and the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein.

  • A Pianist says:

    Norman, I believe Karajan’s recording with Schwarzkopf et al was in fact in mono not stereo, was one of the last high-powered classical recordings with that distinction and was thought to have been underappreciated for its time as listeners began to embrace stereo. I share your view it is the best nonetheless. I believe Schwarzkopf was also singing Rosenkavalier at night while recording the mass during the day, quite the feat, though I may have the particular opera wrong.

    • microview says:

      It was issued here (UK) in mono but the German Electrola import was in stereo. Warner now has it as a download.

  • fflambeau says:

    I will be pummeled for saying this here, but I do not think this is a masterpiece by Beethoven. There are many greater masses out there.

    In answer to the question about God, if Beethoven did believe in a Supreme Being, he was not the Abrahamic god we know. Probably,more of an “Earth God”.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Toscanini/NBC/Bjoerling. A stunning realization of the score. It sounds like what in my mind’s eye is what Beethoven looked like and thought. Does that sound odd? Listen to the recording and you’ll see what I mean.
    Karajan/BPO/Janowitz/EMI. Immeasurably better than his earlier one with Schwarzkopf or his later one on DGG, and almost as good as Toscanini (but not quite).