Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

03 Jun 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Missa solemnis in D major, op. 123 (88 min.)

    Ruth Ziesak Soprano, Gerhild Romberger Contralto, Richard Croft Tenor, Georg Zeppenfeld Bass, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Peter Dijkstra Chorus Master

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    Herbert Blomstedt on Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (21 min.)

When Ludwig van Beethoven began work on the Missa solemnis in 1819, he was experiencing a major crisis in his life. He had more or less lost his hearing which not only made composing difficult, but also lead to his increasing isolation. In this melancholy period, he wrote his seminal late works, including the last string quartets, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis which the composer himself regarded as his “greatest work”. Here, it can be heard in a performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker, the choir of Bayerischer Rundfunk and the conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

It is logical to assume that Beethoven’s difficult personal situation and his devotion to sacred music are interrelated. He, the advocate of the Enlightenment, went in search of a faith at this time – hoping that “God, who knows my innermost soul ... will surely some day relieve me from these afflictions.” In parallel, the desire grew to create a work of liturgical music. For this purpose, he immersed himself in the Catholic liturgy and in numerous settings of the Mass.

In the Missa solemnis, the inspiration from older sources can be heard throughout: in its fugues, in its echoes from the time of Palestrina. And yet this music is not backward-looking. Harmonies and instrumentation point far into the future, and the vocal writing still presents a challenge for choirs and soloists today. But above all, Beethoven’s Mass does not subordinate itself to the dictates of the liturgy. It is no longer functional music but, with unbridled emotion, the music conveys Beethoven’s own thinking and feeling in every bar.

Truth in Contradiction, or In Praise of Struggle

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

The fact that Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer of “humanity and demythologisation”, accepted the constraints of a mass setting again in 1820, from the outset depriving himself of any possibility for determining the formal organisation, was a historical paradox for Theodor W. Adorno, the consequences of which he saw clearly reflected in the stylistic inconsistencies of the Missa solemnis. In his 1959 essay Verfremdetes Hauptwerk Alienated Masterpiece Adorno also observed a widespread “irrelevant worship” of a difficult work which has lost “any possible relation to social practice” so that it is essentially only perceived by its aura.

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis certainly offers enough sources of confusion. In an attempt to bring out more subtle levels of meaning from the text of the ordinary of the mass, which has been interpreted musically thousands of times, Beethoven provides dynamic, tonal and stylistic contrasts within a concise framework. The eclectic profusion of expressive devices used ranges from archaic, church mode idioms (“Et incarnatus est”) to conventional word-painting (ascending scales to “Et ascendit”) to passages of extreme theatricality (the much-discussed warlike interlude in “Dona nobis pacem”). Symphonic build-ups, which are pushed to the brink of frenzied ecstasy (the fugal conclusions of the Gloria and Credo), are heard alongside a genuinely soloistic passage like the extended violin solo in the Benedictus.

One of the principal objections to the Missa during the 19th century was its ambivalent position with regard to liturgical practice. With a performing time of approximately one and a half hours, it is obviously too long for use in a normal church service, and although there were repeated attempts to establish the work in the church context, it is performed for the most part in the concert hall today – for acoustical reasons alone. Franz Josef Fröhlich, a musical scholar from Würzburg, was one of the few contemporary critics who immediately understood that Beethoven had not rejected traditional generic norms because of inability, capriciousness or a passion for innovation, as most of his colleagues alleged. In a review from 1828, Fröhlich wrote that conceptually the Mass was intended rather for a purpose far beyond that of the religious service. Otherwise Beethoven would have conceived it on a more modest scale, the critic continued, and “some passages which exceed the bounds of the church style in their present treatment and verge on the realm of the symphony or dramatic music due to their striking effects” would have been ruled out from the beginning.

Statement of personal belief

Beethoven seems to have arrived at these decisions only gradually, during the composition itself. What began as a work for a specific occasion developed over time into a statement of personal belief. Beethoven made the first sketches during the early months of 1819, when it was definite that his student Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz I, was to be appointed as Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia (now Olomouc in the Czech Republic) in March 1820. Of the three noble Viennese patrons who joined forces in 1809 to provide Beethoven with a large annuity, thus enabling him to devote his life to art free of worry and preventing his impending move to Kassel, the Archduke – whom Beethoven called the “amiable, talented prince” – was by far the most generous and reliable sponsor.

It was clear that Beethoven would compose a festival mass for the installation of his noble benefactor and enthusiastic admirer of his works. The project also reflected his strong desire to receive a permanent appointment as the Archduke’s court music director later in life, which he had long counted on. That was not to happen, however. Beethoven had one year to complete the work, so he postponed other projects, such as the Ninth Symphony and the cycle of variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, for the time being. The fact that the work on the Mass already began to slow down in the Gloria, after an apparently unproblematic start, can be explained only in part by the difficult circumstances in Beethoven’s personal life during the lawsuit over the guardianship of his nephew Karl.

Although Beethoven may initially have envisioned a standard length of around 45 minutes for a setting consistent with the order of the liturgy, the Missa solemnis quickly assumed much larger proportions. Unperturbed, Beethoven let the date of the bishop’s installation pass by – in the end, a mass by Johann Nepomuk Hummel was performed – and took several years, during which he worked on other compositions, including the last three piano sonatas, opp. 109 to 111, concurrently with the Missa. The score was not completed until early 1823. The premiere finally took place at the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society in April 1824, under the auspices of another patron, the Russian Prince Galitzin.

Volatile, heterogeneous, expressive

That the Missa is to be understood as a deeply emotional statement is already indicated by the well-known dedication “From the heart – may it go to the heart!”, which Beethoven wrote on the first page of the Kyrie in the manuscript. Among the many passages in which this urgency of inner emotion is perceptible, one is particularly striking. At the close of the “Qui tollis” in the Gloria, Beethoven expands the plea for mercy into an increasingly imploring prayer by the soloists and chorus, which grows to a despairing tutti cry on an extremely dissonant F sharp minor six-five chord. The recurring individual voices add the agitated exclamations “Ah” and “Oh” as if alarmed, which Beethoven inserted to emphasise the spontaneity of personal expression.

If this section ends peacefully and introspectively, the jagged triad motif in the following “Quoniam” is sweeping. A similar gulf between nonchalance on the one hand and obsessive emphasis on the other can be heard at the end of the Credo. While the “Credo in unam sanctam catholicam”, the profession of faith in the church as an institution, is recited monotonously by the tenors of the chorus in staccato – and almost drowned out by the constantly repeated “credo” cries of the other voices – the prospect of “eternal life” is given disproportionate importance with more than 170 bars. The hope of life after death, which may still sound like an optimistic assertion during the breathtaking stretto fugue, intensifies to a moving vision in the exquisitely orchestrated pianissimo of the close. Here, there is inner sympathy with particular statements, there, audible alienation towards formulas which are, at best, still followed ritually. Perhaps it is these discrepancies in particular which offer the contemporary listener who questions his own religiosity something he can directly identify with.

It is precisely these aspects of the Missa, which gave rise to doubts in earlier generations, that summarise its profound truth: the volatility and heterogeneity of the inflections, the strange convergence of very expressive and very general statements. The arduous tone of the work results from such rifts in the certainty of faith. Even the most brilliant interpreters are well advised not to smooth it out rashly. It conveys the essence.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. After early lessons at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in March 2011, when he conducted Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione and Bruckner’s F minor Mass. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. He was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus was formed in 1946 and is the oldest of the station’s three ensembles. Its artistic fortunes have always gone hand in hand with those of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose principal conductor – currently Mariss Jansons – holds the same position with the chorus, working in close association with its chorus master. From 1990 to 2005 the chorus master was Michael Gläser, who transformed the choir into one of the world’s leading ensembles and brought it to international attention. Since 2005 its chorus master has been Peter Dijkstra, who was born in the Netherlands in 1978. Thanks to its homogeneity of timbre and a stylistic versatility that encompasses all periods and genres, the Bavarian Radio Chorus is much sought after by leading orchestras throughout Europe. Since 1998 it has had its own series of subscription concerts at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. The Bavarian Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2010, when it took part in performances of Brahms’s cantata Rinaldo under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

Richard Croft, born in the USA, has enjoyed enormous success in recent years in major American opera houses such as those in New York, Chicago, Seattle and Houston, the leading Parisian stages, the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich, Hamburg and Berlin, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, the opera house in Zurich, La Scala in Milan, and in renowned centres of music such as Cologne, Lyon and Stockholm, as well as at the festivals in Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence and Glyndebourne. Richard Croft’s repertoire includes the title roles in the Mozart operas Mitridate, Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito, and in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the roles of Jupiter and Hyllus (in Handel’s oratorios Semele and Hercules respectively), Ubaldo (in Haydn’s Armida), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), Belmonte (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Conte d’Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Loge (Das Rheingold), Tom Rakewell (The Rake’s Progress) and Gandhi in Satyagraha by Philip Glass. As a concert soloist, the tenor has performed with, among others, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Furthermore, he has also worked together with historical performance practice ensembles such as the Musiciens du Louvre under the baton of Marc Minkowski, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (conductor: René Jacobs). With these concerts, Richard Croft makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Gerhild Romberger was born and raised in Emsland in Germany, and initially studied to be a school music teacher at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold before graduating in singing under Heiner Eckels. She additionally attended courses in lieder interpretation with Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Höll. The mezzo-soprano has always concentrated on concert singing: the main focus of her activities are lieder recitals and her involvement in contemporary music. The singer’s repertoire includes all the major alto and mezzo-soprano roles in oratorio and concert music, from the Baroque to 20th century works. Major recent engagements for Gerhild Romberger included working together with Manfred Honeck (e.g. in performances of Gustav Mahler symphonies, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and the Große Messe of Walter Braunfels) and concerts at NDR Hamburg in Wolfgang Rihm’s Drei späte Gedichte von Heiner Müller for alto and orchestra. She has performed with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, several German radio symphony orchestras, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Riccardo Chailly and Thomas Hengelbrock have invited Gerhild Romberger to perform in their concerts. She also enjoys a close artistic partnership with Philippe Herreweghe and his Orchestre des Champs-Elysées. The artist, who has held a professorship in singing at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold for several years, now performs with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

Georg Zeppenfeld studied with Hans Sotin at the Cologne University of Music. Following engagements at the Städtischen Bühnen Münster and the Oper der Stadt Bonn, he became a permanent member of the ensemble at the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden. Many guest appearances have taken him to the stages of major opera houses and festivals all over Europe. Under the direction of conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Myung-Whun Chung, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Kent Nagano and Christian Thielemann as well as in concerts with the Munich Philharmonic, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Concentus Musicus Wien and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, he has developed a broad repertoire of roles in music from different periods and musical styles. These include Mozart’s Sarastro, Figaro and Don Alfonso as well as Mussorgsky’s Pimen (Boris Godunov) and Wagner roles such as Fasolt (Das Rheingold) and Gurnemanz (Parsifal). At his debut with San Francisco Opera in 2007, conducted by Claudio Abbado, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2009, he had a great success in Mozart’s Zauberflöte. On the concert platform, Georg Zeppenfeld has focused in particular on the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn and the great late-Romantic oratorios. He gave his debut as soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2010 under the direction of Pierre Boulez in concerts with Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol.

Ruth Ziesak studied with Elsa Cavelti at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts and began her singing career at the Theater der Stadt Heidelberg. Numerous competition successes, including the first prize at the prestigious ’s-Hertogenbosch competition, quickly paved the way to an international career. After a period at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, her career took her to various German theatres, then to the stages of Milan, Vienna, Paris, London and New York, where she had great success in her signature roles of Pamina, Ännchen and Sophie. As Countess in Le nozze di Figaro her appearances include at Glyndebourne and in Zurich. The sought-after concert artist performs with major orchestras throughout Europe, and particularly enjoys working with Baroque orchestras such as the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. She has also appeared at the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals and the BBC Proms, among others. Her work with conductors such as Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Lothar Zagrosek, Riccardo Chailly and Ivor Bolton has taken her to the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and other famous ensembles. Her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in March 1998 in Bach’s St. John Passion. In recitals, she is regularly accompanied by the pianists Gerold Huber and András Schiff. Ruth Ziesak is a professor of singing at the University of Music Saar.

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