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Published on 15th August 2016

Beethoven's beast of a piece, the 'Missa Solemnis', unleashes its might with MSO

Da da da duuuuum. Da da da duuuuuum.

Alongside the Screee Screee Screee of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the shower scene in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, Psycho, and the Derrr dum, Derrr dum of John William’s Jaws theme, the first eight notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony might be the most universally recognisable musical phrase ever composed. But of all the many thousands of notes penned by Vienna’s 19th-century musical rebel, it’s the all too rarely performed Missa Solemnis that Beethoven considered his greatest accomplishment.

If you’re unable to hum any tunes from that piece, don’t feel too bad. Outings for the Missa Solemnis are few and far between, but this is no commentary on the quality of the music, which is still viewed as one the classical repertoire’s most important artistic achievements, nearly 200 years after it was written. Given its revered status, you might well ask, why isn’t the Missa Solemnis a more familiar presence in our concert halls? Coming in at one and half hours in length, and requiring a large orchestra, a choir, organ and four vocal soloists, it’s one of the ‘Mount Everests’ of the classical canon, and just like that infamous peak, it can only be conquered by the fearless.

Given the herculean stamina and musical insight required to pull it off, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis has earned a reputation as a no-go for all but the most experienced conductors. In fact, a maestro’s first time taming this beast of a piece is considered a watershed moment in their career. So, it’s an auspicious occasion for Melbourne’s music lovers that Sir Andrew Davis (pictured above) – the chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and one of the world’s most respected conductors – has decided to deliver his first Missa Solemnis in the Victorian capital.

It’s also an invaluable opportunity for Melburnians to experience a work saturated in the cultural shifts taking place at a pivotal moment in the history of western civilisation. Simply put, the Missa Solemnis is a setting of the traditional Catholic Liturgy, but the ambition and scope of this piece reached further than any Mass before it had ever dared.

It resonates with the questioning philosophies of the late Enlightenment, that rejected blind, complicit faith for a worldview governed by reason and intellect. Compared to many of his contemporaries, Beethoven’s relationship with the church could be best described as complicated. While not being especially devout, his personal brand of Christianity was progressive in its thinking, hinged on a far more intimate, directly influential connection to the divine. This is distilled in the Missa Solemnis into music of staggering beauty and inspiration; an epic, masterful celebration of life and spirituality.

Considering its profound philosophical and personal significance, it’s little surprise that this is the piece that Beethoven committed the most time to writing, taking more than four years to complete. Throughout this period, from 1819 to 1823, the composer sketched, tinkered and agonised over the music, but from the outset of this mammoth undertaking he was convinced it was his best work, telling many of his patrons and publishers that its premiere would be, “the most glorious day of my life.”

His years of toil paid off, yielding what is considered to be one of the composer’s most complex, detailed and restlessly inventive creations. But perhaps the most impressive facet of the Missa Solemnis, is that this extraordinary piece was composed by Beethoven after he had become profoundly deaf. Three movements of this epic Mass were conducted by the composer at the same 1824 concert that featured the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, famous for its glorious climax, the evergreen “Ode to Joy”. Once the piece had finished, Beethoven was momentarily completely unaware of its rapturous reception, until he was physically turned by the leader of the orchestra to face the jubilant audience and witness their reaction to music he would never hear.

In fact, Beethoven’s deafness is sometimes credited as playing a part in the Missa Solemnis’s relative obscurity. The piece received a successful premiere in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in the April of 1824, but when Beethoven conducted the Viennese premiere a month later, alongside his Ninth Symphony, rehearsal time was scarce. Due to the complexity of the music, the dearth of preparation and the fact that Beethoven was unable to hear if the piece was even remotely accurate, it’s been suggested by some scholars that this crucial showcase on home turf may have been a long way from adequately capturing the magnitude of the Missa Solemnis’s genius.

The piece would never be remounted during Beethoven’s lifetime. Less than two years later, in the winter of 1826, he would fall ill, spending the next three months confined to his bed before finally dying in March 1827. It seems unfair that Beethoven was unable to experience his magnum opus firsthand, but there’s a sense that his drive for writing the Missa Solemnis had little to do with tawdry adulation. This was a true labour of love; an astonishing act of devotion that focused every fibre of a titanic talent.

With a quartet of world-class soloists – soprano Emily Birsan, mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, tenor Andrew Staples and bass-baritone Christian van Horn – as well as the MSO and it’s excellent chorus at his disposal, Sir Andrew Davis’s Missa Solemnis debut promises to be a performance to do Beethoven proud.