Saturday, December 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Beethoven

Yesterday, December 16 is the date ascribed to the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1770. The son of a musician at the court of Bonn, Beethoven early in life was marked out for musical greatness. In many ways, a prodigy like Beethoven, though lacking the resources that were available to Mozart in addition to having a father more in exploiting his son for profit, Beethoven nevertheless bloomed and was at the age of 13 given musical composition instruction by the court organist, Christian Gottlieb Neefe.

The rest of Beethoven's life can be read online, if you should choose to go further. Unlike Mozart and Haydn, the two giants who preceded him, Beethoven wrote comparatively little for the church. Mozart and Haydn both had powerful patrons in the church throughout their lives and demanded the composition of sacred music for their courts or name days of their employers. Beethoven wrote two masses, one in C major and the Missa Solemnis in D.

The Missa Solemnis follows in the tradition of Bach's B Minor Mass or Mozart's Great Mass in C minor in that is on a grandiose scale, though not in the "cantata" form. This work was written for his pupil and friend, Archduke Rudolf who later was appointed Prince-Archbishop of Olomouc which is in Moravia. The earlier Mass in C major was written for the name day of the wife of Prince Nicholas of Esterhazy. Haydn was formerly in the employ of the Esterhazy family, but Haydn was now touring the world and Haydn, being a former teacher of Beethoven, had probably secured for him this commission.

The Mass in C major was a huge disappointment. The performance was horrible mainly because the musicians resented to having to take directions from a deaf composer. The court composer, Hummel, was publicly reprimanded by Prince Nicholas for failing to keep the musicians in line for rehearsals.

The failure of the performance probably kept Beethoven from writing other sacred pieces and probably also contributed to its scarce performance today. His only other attempt in the "middle period" was his Oratorio, Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives). Unlike the Oratorios of Handel, Beethoven set a theme from the New Testament. This work,too, has suffered a lack of performance. It has many great gems, but they are not widely known. The Missa Solemnis, despite its greater recognition, is still not performed with any frequency today simply because of the scale of the work and its massive orchestration (the orchestration from the 9th symphony is even smaller).

It is lamentable and sad that the music written for the Western Rite churches have fallen into obscurity. Most churches today lack the necessary musical forces to perform classical works. And today, the only time one may hear a mass of Beethoven or Haydn or Mozart or even Schubert is in a concert hall and not in a church. Of course, many would argue that such music is distracting and does not center on prayer. Of course, such people who make the charge favor the "praise band" style; now THAT IS DISTRACTING!

I would encourage you to listen to the Kyrie from the Mass in C. It starts out slowly and subdued with a plea for mercy. But, as it grows in intensity and dynamics, it never becomes arrogant or haughty. It begins softly; it ends softly. The music never overpowers the plea for mercy, but it serves the text.

I can only wonder at what great works Beethoven may have written for the church had he lived longer and some circumstances in life were different. But what he did leave are gems and should not be cast aside. Though he will continue to be known and praised for his symphonies and his sonatas, his contributions to the sacred should receive due attention as well. Happy birthday, Beethoven, greatest of composers!

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