Eduard Hanslick reviews Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (1861)



A review by Eduard Hanslick of a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  Extracts from the translations by Henry Pleasants.  I have omitted Pleasants’ footnotes.  My own additions are in square brackets.



“Many of my works were immediately effective; others, not equally fathomable and compelling, required many years to achieve recognition.  In the meantime, these years, too, have passed, and second and third generations have doubly and triply made good to me what I had to endure from my earlier contemporaries.”


These words of Goethe, from the introduction to West-Ostlicher Divan, were found underlined in Beethoven’s copy and written out in his own hand in his diary.  Beethoven was convinced that he would not live to see his later, more difficult works understood by his contemporaries, and he was resigned to his fate.  The hope for which he sought sustenance in Goethe’s words did not deceive him……….


The impression was powerful.  Of that there can be no doubt, however difficult and oppressive much of it may have seemed to the audience.  There is no other work of Beethoven’s which crushes the unprepared listener with such gigantic strength, at the same time raising him up again, deafened, delighted, confused.  The Mass in D, and its companion piece, the Ninth Symphony, are creations which recall Zelter’s dictum: “ I admire Beethoven with awe”.  Only devoted and extensive study can dispel this awe.  A work by Beethoven conceived in the full power of his imagination and fully characteristic of his utter lack of compromise, is not to be enjoyed as easily, as freely, as a symphony by Haydn.  In the Mass in D, Beethoven set down everything he possessed in the way of sublime ideas and religious feelings; he gave to this music three years of his life then in its sunset and brilliantly aglow with its double majesty of genius and adversity.


The more closely and confidently one approaches the Mass, the more pure its outlines appear, the more solid its structure, the more profound its meaning…….


There is no doubt that the Mass, in its whole and in its parts, stands at the outermost boundary of sacred music.  And yet one must be careful about accepting the often repeated objection that it is “unchurchly”.  Whether a church composition is appropriate to the requirements of a particular service, or whether it is imbued with a religious spirit, are two entirely different questions.  Although both are perfectly justified, they are not of equal validity when reviewed from a more elevated standpoint……..


 The “Kyrie”, with its calmly ordered harmonious masses of sound, its devout mood, gives no hint of anything contrary to churchly convention.  But in the “Gloria”, overpowering grandeur of conception tears the composer from convention and carries him along with it.  It was simply contrary to Beethoven’s nature to constrain within the framework of a church service a work begun so greatly and impelled by such an inspirational force.  With unexampled self-assurance, he builds up every particle of the text with the profoundest mysticism, pursuing the individual word to the very kernel of its meaning and making of the “Gloria” such a perfect whole that, in grandeur of conception and wealth of contrasts, it can be called a kind of holy office in itself.  And the penetrating insight, the illustrative power of his music, so mounts in the “Credo” that the individual articles of faith are spoken with the subjectivity of a genius bowed by the exaltation of faith.


The further he goes, the more the walls of the cathedral seem to fall back before him.  Everything becomes higher and broader.  The waves of tone are directed no longer at the church and its community; they seem, rather, to flow back to the origin of being.  The mood calms gradually after the “Credo”.  The transubstantiation is represented by a wonderfully beatific praeludium in organ-like progressions for flutes and violins.  It leads to the “Benedictus”, in which a single violin accompanies the prayer of the singers with phrases now intimate, now mysterious and mystical.  The “Agnus Dei” rises solemnly, deeply founded, goes into a pastoral-like, evenly moving six-eight rhythm, and seems about to burst into a bright A major when the scene suddenly changes.  There is a succession of soft, pulsating beats on the kettle-drum.  Muffled sixths scurry by like clouds before a storm, and the sound of distant trumpets brightens the scene like pale, lingering flashes of lightning.  “Agnus Dei” the alto sings in recitative, as if in unspeakable anxiety; then it is repeated more importunately by the tenor, until the chorus breaks in with the shattering outcry, “Miserere nobis” .


This passage, the most disparaged in the whole Mass, is, in my opinion, its most moving.   He who has experienced its power will never understand how even so submissive a Beethoven admirer as Schindler could have proposed the expurgation of this “offensive dramatic episode”.  No more churchly, at any rate, is the orchestral presto which later bursts in so passionately, and which could well have been taken from the finale of a symphony – a Beethoven symphony, to be sure.  All this does not prevent me from regarding the spirit which breathes in this Mass as magnificently religious, although certainly transcending churchly conventions……….


All his music was to him religious; in art he always felt himself to be in a church, and that is why, in this particular case, it did not occur to him to don specifically churchly raiment……


Heinse once said of an effective piece of sacred music, and with reason, that “it filled the spirit of the listener without making itself felt”.  In this sense we have the ideal of true church music in the Masses of Palestrina; they are the community sublimated in music.  The harmonious stream, crystal clear, moves with calm repose; there is no melodic excitement, no rhythmic stimulation, no disconcerting instrumental colour.  Palestrina represents that point in the history of music where music had advanced sufficiently far to command respect as an art, but not so far that its resources had outgrown the purposes of the church.  Palestrina’s music is what the church likes music to be, namely, a means of intensifying religious devotion.  It belongs completely to the church, just as do the sacred pictures, the painted windows, the costly vestments, and other art products which the church employs, not to awaken the artistic senses but to stimulate devotion.  The ultimate advancement of art is not profitable to the church……..


In the conflict as to whether the church or music itself should dominate in his own sacred music (in the concept of any sacred music there is an inner conflict), he decided in favour of art, courageously, and fully conscious of the import of his decision.  And it is on this basis that one must follow the grandeur of his genius, whole-heartedly, without concern as to whether this passage or that seems too dramatic or too symphonic……


[First published in 1861.]


Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 72-77.

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