In classical music there is a group of large works that almost more than any other of the forms of classical music show the ambition, the competitive attitude, the stunning skill, and the sheer joy of the composers working. Those are the choral works for orchestra, vocal soloists, and choir, composed on liturgical texts, but not meant for worship.
In the 1700s Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew is meant for church service, as well as some settings of the catholic liturgy of the mass, like Mozart’s Coronation Mass (1779), but the majority of the settings of these texts we hear today were meant for the concert hall. Even Bach’s mighty H-moll Messe (Mass in B minor), on the catholic liturgy in Latin is not meant for church service - Bach was a protestant - but for presenting his take on the task.
During the same period a movement in the other direction also left us a staple of utterly impressive works of musical art, namely the oratorios, an attempt to sacralize the possibilities of the opera. They are stage works on religious topics with no theatrical spectacular.
Händel’s Messiah (1742) holds a special place, but Haydn enjoyed great popularity with his two oratorios: The Creation (1797), based on the mythology from the biblical Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and The Seasons (1801). Mozart wrote none, but Beethoven did, although it is among his rarest performed major works.
Beethoven has three large choral works bordering on or in the religious tradition and meant for concert performance. The three, seen together, says something significant about Beethoven, as a composer and artist, about the time, and about the future.
The first is of course his Symphony No. 9, which not only breaks all symphonic standards, even those Beethoven set himself with the 50-minute Symphony No. 3, and creates a legacy that loomed over symphonic music quite literally for a hundred years. It also draws choral music into the symphony world of music for the first time.
But the lyrics to the choral music, Schiller’s Ode an die Freude (Ode to Joy) are truly remarkable for choral music of this scope, departing from any ethnocentrism, colonialism and religiousness or sectarianism and sing to the common union of all mankind. As if to thoroughly state a point, it uses Greek mythology (Elysium) and not Christian (Eden) to describe a state of bliss
The second of the three works is the oratorio. It is – as Haydn’s The Creation and as Händel’s Messiah – done on biblical stuff, but something completely different from any other biblical composition of merit, before or after. It chooses the evangelical scene with Christ on the Mount of Olives – this is also its title, arguably the most individually focused and psychological in opposition to sacred passages in the whole of the Bible.
It’s a wonderful short story about the anxiety felt by Jesus of Nazareth in the evening when he reckons he shall be arrested and put in jail with certain torture and even worse.
Who chooses the single most graphically realistic, psycho dramatic passage in The New Testament for an oratorio, if not somebody on the way from a conventional pre-modern world view to a very modern individuality, somebody who suffers himself, as Beethoven always did one way or another? He had a difficult personality, never got married despite his intentions, and he lost his hearing quite early.
Mirroring your suffering in Christ’s (and not the other way around as Thomas á Kempis would have it) shows an existential self-centeredness that is modern in itself. Dylan does it several times, to quote an obvious example. In It’s all right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding (“Darkness at the break of noon”, cf. Luke 23,44) and Shelter from the storm (“In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes”, cf. Luke 23,34), and then he uses the very same passages as Beethoven’s oratorio about his own doubt, months before his strange Bible Belt Christian conversion, in Señor (Señor, señor, you know their hearts is as hard as leather/ Well, give me a minute, let me get it together/ I just gotta pick myself up off the floor/ I'm ready when you are, señor”, cf. Matt 26,41-43)
Beethoven’s oratorio plays through this story. It depicts the emotional turmoil of Jesus of Nazareth, and emphasizes his own choice of fate, more than fate itself.
Is there no God in there at all? No devotional spirituality? Beethoven was a great humanist, but were there really atheists then? Beethoven makes an unsettling, but potentially existentially reassuring point in his Missa Solemnis (1823), a work just as ambitious as the Ninth Symphony.
As has been said, it is not sacred music in the sense of liturgical devotion, it is concert music. It is an unforgettable journey out into spiritual realms not easily envisioned by anybody, including the listener.
During almost one and a half hours there are absolutely no low points, no middle sections, no fillers on lyrics that are supposed to be there but are perceived uninteresting to compose on. Or shortened as when Haydn lets the chorus sing two liturgical passages on top of one another. The Missa Solemnis is a composition on inherited elements, musical as well as lyrical, designed to put up the most solemn and enlightened artwork.
Beethoven is loyal, even devoted to the sentiment of the mass throughout the setting. Its movements are fixed, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, incorporating the Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The lyrics of the Gloria and Credo are very long and very churchlike, whereas the other, usually short movements have simpler lyrics and less high-strung music. Beethoven follows the pattern and takes it to its limits.
But in the Benedictus, he goes his own way. The movement has a unexpectedly long instrumental opening from which a solo violin evolves producing the most shockingly beautiful melody that turns out to be the main theme of the movement that the four vocal soloists sing the solemn greeting, “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Cf. Matt 23,9, Psalm 118,26).
The thematic working out of the Benedictus-text in the vocal quartet has this wordless soloist winding in and out of the musical texture. What is this wordless soloist signifying?
It is shockingly transcendental, if the shocking can hold a transcendental element, which we know it can, not only from Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), but also Rudolf Otto’s phenomenological and psychological analysis in Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1917/1926)
Or as Van Morrison puts it in Summertime in England, the 17-minute long, epically transcendental rhythm-and-blues ballad about Woodsworth’s and Coleridge’s journey to The Lake District (from Common One, 1980): “It ain’t why-why-why, it just is.”
The problem is that this solo violin will never again leave you. Whenever you hear a setting of the mass it is there (in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) or it is absolutely not there (all the others), meaning that it exists and is present in all its wordlessness, whenever it is there or not. You well know it could be there. That’s one way of understanding the transcendental: it is there, even though it is not there.
The violin solo in Benedictus is not rarely seen as a symbolical epitomizing of the voice of God or The Holy Spirit. But there is a problem in that. A problem connected with the nature of reality.
Factually it is actually there, which neither God nor The Holy Spirit ever is. But it is still a voice without words that is unmistakably a voice. Can a voice without words attain individuality in liturgy, one of the most unindividual activities we know? All of this is liturgy, even though it is in a concert.
Its beauty and determination seem to suggest it can: the solo is strikingly individual. We must ask the question: What is real – what is reality? Kant explains this once and for all, in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1788).
Reality consists of space and time, nothing more, nothing less. This, among other things means that you cannot prove God (against Thomas Aquinas) nor are you born an empty entity, like a Tabula Rasa (against Locke).
Because in knowing about time and space you just as soon begin deducing all that moves and talks and touches, back and forth and up and down and soon you know everything you need to know to know to live. This is where this wordless voice reveals itself in the Benedictus from The Missa Solemnis. In time and space. As pure music, pure spirit.
I want to thank Alison Leonard for her indispensable reading /jb