The Dumb Ox and the Deaf Composer

Those of you acquainted with SDG’s work will hopefully not have failed to notice the recent release of the DVD of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis Op. 123 conducted by our artistic director John Nelson at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in February 2010 with the peerless Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Gulbenkian Choir, a trailer for which you can watch here. My only personal claim to fame with regard to this recording is as the work’s ‘invisible organist’ tucked away behind the chorus – in some respects a frustrating location in terms of the distance from the rest of the orchestra, but in other respects right in the heart of the action, as it gave me a chance to appreciate the fantastic achievement of the Gulbenkian Choir in performing this most demanding of choral masterpieces four nights in a row with unremitting commitment and intensity.

As any of you who may have played organ continuo in any of the great works for choir and orchestra of the classical period are probably aware, there is a long and venerable tradition of including wholly inaudible (unless you happen to make a mistake that reveals your existence) but technically challenging organ parts within the orchestra for the purpose of supporting instrumental or choral lines. The Missa Solemnis is no exception in this respect; but if there is a certain apparent pointlessness in cutting one’s fingers on Beethoven’s speed-of-light fugati in the knowledge that you will never be heard, this is more than is compensated for by the sheer, humbling joy of being able to feel some of the greatest counterpoint ever written coming to life under one’s hands.

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Despite its obvious monumental grandeur as well as moments both of kinetic exhilaration and great melodic beauty (in passages such as the violin solo in the Benedictus), the Missa Solemnis remains for many one of Beethoven’s most difficult and indeed forbidding works, both musically and conceptually. If its position within the canon of great masterpieces of Western sacred music is beyond dispute, it has attained none of the popularity of the Ninth Symphony (despite equalling if not surpassing it in scale and elevation), continuing rather to stand in musical history as a huge, unanswered question mark. And perhaps precisely therein lies its enigmatic greatness, its unexhausted capacity to challenge, indeed dislocate the listener on each hearing.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project for me was the opportunity it gave to do a little digging into the fascinating, if sometimes perplexing history of the genesis of the work and Beethoven’s lifelong religious quest. Those interested can download the results of this musico-theological inquiry download by clicking on this link. Here, too, it seems that the Missa Solemnis leaves us far more questions than answers. Which in my estimation is usually a good sign when it comes to works of art. Or theology.

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A typically untidy manuscript page of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

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