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Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

A few years ago I caught Jimmy Cliff at BB Kings. What a party. He was terrific as he went through his expected repertoire of liberation songs to a very Reggae beat. For his last tune Cliff pulled out this giant bass drum the likes of which I have never seen. As he got into the tune the drum strike would send a soul penetrating sound wave reverberating into a frenetic audience bopping in unison. The vibe tickled as it pierced the body and continued to resonate after the sound wave passed through your heart. I imagine it was like getting zapped with a cosmic ray gun. The sound wave united artist with audience bringing them together into a unified vibe similar to the collective experience of the Holy Spirit that brings believers into a shared spiritual communion.

The recent performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass) by The New York Philharmonic Orchestra at NJPAC was a similar experience only multiplied by a factor of 10. The Orchestra led by Alan Gilbert fronted a 80 person choir and four vocalists that sang the libretto. Immediately, one is struck by the genius of Beethoven to score a composition of such massive dimensions and ensembic scale in service to the dramatic sweep of a divinely inspired vision. One is also left to wonder how a conductor can order a unified musical presentation by such a massive assemblage of singers and musicians? Mr. Gilbert acquitted himself very well and delivered a musical experience the likes of which I have never encountered most certainly in a live setting. This type of music is not listened to it is more of a full body experience.

The choir and orchestra engaged a dynamic dialectical interplay throughout the 75 minute piece with the choir often getting the upper hand. The vocal proclamations ascended with declarative force while the orchestra evoked a counterpoint of reasoned consistency that absorbed and controlled the power of the choir. The interplay of the piece suggested to me an image of an absorbent God that reigns in a celestial habitat. The multitudinous evocations, prayers and petitions from humanity are folded into the massive divinity that challenges and defies a human comprehension. The brute scale of the presentation’s momentum and the avowed certainty of the pieces direction remained unquestioned suggesting a cosmological predestination at work absorbing any loose ends of free will by performers or the comprehension of the audience.

Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis in 1814. It was a time of great upheaval and political uncertainty throughout Europe. The rise of nation states were eroding the political and institutional power structures of the aristocracy and a theocratic ideology that held it in place. The Missa Solemnis was commissioned by Arch Duke Rudolph who was appointed Cardinal and Archbishop of Olmutz. The piece was to be played at a solemn mass to commemorate the occasion. Though billed as a solemn mass, solemnity is not an adjective I would use to describe the piece. Beethoven assaults us with an overpowering forced conversion experience.

A Beethoven contemporary Prussian General Karl Von Clausewitzt stated, “pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.”Missa Solemnis seemed to take the great generals advise to heart. The power and scale of the piece, its careful orchestration, and the continual exchange of the orchestra and choir also seems to suggest another Beethoven contemporary, the master dialectician Georg Hegel, may have been an influence in the Missa Solemnis. I raise this observation because the pieces structure suggests that the composer utilized Hegel’s dialectic method to arrange a conceived cosmology. The piece earnestly sought a divine experience but failed to transcend the bounds of an inspired institutional theology jealously guarding its eroding political power and ebbing sovereignty by co-opting the denying a transcendent experience to the audience. In my mind, the dialectic of the Missa Solemnis, never synthesized into a satisfying higher apotheosis. The piece seemed to continually fold back into itself. It lacked a needed reform of subtlety, reflection and space for a personal ubiquitous transcendence of the listener. It seemed to exclusively rely on the quality of the absolute force of its statement.

The Missa Solemnis scale and force of proclamation condemns the audience to a fixed position in a staid universe. It reinforces the quiet solemnity demanded of an inert audience required by the art form. I may have yearned for some Pentecostal action from the likes of Charles Mingus’s Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting only to be handed some very white bread Episcopalian homily affirming the fixed hierarchical cosmology. Absent of a voice of protestant reform and no ubiquitous inflection points, that allowed for the soul to escape the earthly barrage of the musical assault. All becomes controlled and incorporated into a catholic exegesis. Yes there was passion, tragedy, expectation and hope but save a small interlude of a bubbling choral evocation the transcendent moments always get dragged back to earth by an authoritarian dogma intent on maintaining the earthly order of things, through ruthless power, stringent conformity and submission to a mysterious all powerful opaque hierarchy. I know that this conflicts with Beethoven’s democratic sympathies beautifully articulated in his Ninth Symphony, but the two pieces dramatically diverge and one lies prostrate before the kingdom of heaven while the other celebrates the secular promise of humanism. I liken Missa Solemnis to Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Songs of the Forest. Drowning itself in the mass conformity of Soviet Social Realism the human voice is heard and articulated as a singular chorus whose greater aspirations are ultimately subsumed by the “Great Gardener” Joseph Stalin.

In the age of The Avatar, the majestic architecture of grand cathedrals, the power of mass choirs and the aesthetic elation of classical art forms has lost its awe inspiring impact. The grandness of the Missa Solemnis is indeed awe inspiring and beautiful to behold; but in the age of technology the mass availability of individuated 3D multidimensional events eclipses universal catholic corporatism negating the individual by channeling and controlling a personal connection to a transcendent experience.  Jesus Christ was not about palaces, power structures or propping up potentates. The ministry of Jesus Christ was about real people with real problems solved with abiding love that encouraged thoughtful engagement. It is the only way that mortals can transcend earthly trials and touch the divine. There is no coercion or sacred cows to protect only an abiding practice of unconditional transcendent love.

Yet for me an irony of the Missa Solemnis remains. I came away from the performance unable to remember a single melody or consistent theme from the score. Beethoven never repeats the theme throughout the extended work. We are enraptured into the immediacy of the experience like Moses’s encounter with God in the form of the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai. Like God the Missa Solemnis is what it purports to be. “I am that I am.” In this respect Missa Solemnis succeeds as a call to an existential engagement of a divinity that passes all understanding.  Reggae may synchronize the human heart beat to The Beneficent Ones finger taps; while the Missa Solemnis envelops the soul in a cascade of sound capturing the communicant with an overpowering force that leaves little doubt of the providence of a divine sovereign.

As a simple truth, Reggae’s beating drum may be a bit more prophetic and democratic. Jimmy Cliff  confronted me with an undeniable truth of his resonating drum. Beethoven assaulted me with an overpowering forced conversion experience. If religion is about informing our conscience and heart to conquer free will by liberating it from the earthly tyranny of the flesh you must be allowed to dance to the beat of many different drummers. That is what liberation is all about. Perhaps dancing to the drum of a Shamanic Rhasta Man is closer to my idea of a Missa Solemnis.

You Tube Music Video: Beethoven Missa Solemnis (D-Dur, Opus 123) Kyrie

Risk; culture, institutional

June 30, 2010 Posted by | Christianity, culture, democracy, music, politics, psychology, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments