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.