As conductor Thomas Dausgaard prepares to lead the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Swedish Radio Choir in a performance of Beethoven’s sublime Missa solemnis as a part of the White Light Festival and Great Performers, he illuminates the work’s historical context in this beautiful playlist.

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Responsoria ad Matutium in Nativitate Domini iuxta ritum monastatitcum: Responsorium I: Odie nobis caelorum rex
Performed by Coro de Monjes de la Abadía de Santo Domingo de Silos

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is basically a stylistic melting pot, and Gregorian chant inspired some of the most archaic sounding moments.

 

Missa L’Homme Armé: I. Kyrie by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Performed by The Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers

Beethoven was studying Palestrina, the master of polyphony, while he was composing the Missa. Palestrina's vocal writing was, and is, considered ideal in its balance between the horizontal and the vertical—the beautiful line of the individual voices and the sum of its parts. In the Missa, this is often echoed, for example, in the quiet passage leading to the violin solo in the Benedictus.

 

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: Fugue from Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B Minor, BWV 893 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff

At this time, Beethoven was also studying Bach, the Baroque master of polyphony. He even arranged part of this fugue for string quintet, probably preparing for the many fugues in the Missa! Beethoven is known to have begun playing The Well-Tempered Clavier in his teenage years; it was probably the only composition by Bach that Beethoven knew and had the music for. And he adored it. Here it’s performed by Wilhelm Kempff, who I had the privilege of hearing perform several concerts when I was a child, and whose teachers descended straight from Beethoven.

 

Messiah, HWV 56, Part II: “Hallelujah!” by George Frideric Handel
Performed by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie

Beethoven—as well as Haydn and Mozart—considered Handel the greatest. The Messiah was one of Beethoven's favorite works, famously praising his ability to achieve "great effects with simple means" in his powerful writing for chorus and orchestra, often echoed in the Missa.

 

Mass in C Major – Missa tempore belli (“Paukenmesse”) Hob. XXII:9: Dona Nobis by Franz Haydn
Performed by The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

The dramatic timpani that dominates the opening of the Dona Nobis Pacem from Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” (also called "Paukenmesse”) is a pre-echo of Beethoven's dramatic use of war sounds in his Agnus Dei. Did he know Haydn's Mass?

 

Requiem K. 626 – Recordare by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performed by Le Concert Des Nations, conducted by Jordi Savall

Mozart’s early and unexpected death meant that Beethoven, who had plans to travel to Vienna to study with him, had to find another teacher (Haydn). Mozart's Requiem was one of Beethoven's favorite works. Here, I’ve included the timeless Recordare, with its fluid, Palestrina-inspired opening.

 

Requiem No. 1 in C Minor: Sequentia by Luigi Cherubini
Performed by Kammerchor Stuttgart and Hofkapelle Stuttgart, conducted by Frieder Bernius

But for his own funeral, Beethoven wanted the now seldom heard Cherubini C Minor Requiem to be performed. In the beginning of the Dies Irae, Cherubini famously introduces the tam-tam to dramatic effect. In the Missa, Beethoven didn't go that far, but maybe achieved even more drama by his extraordinary and challenging use of the singers.

 

Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) III. Adagio sostenuto by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performed by Emil Gilels

The larger-than-life scale of the Missa solemnis is the climax of the unusually long works Beethoven wrote leading up to it, like the Archduke Trio, the Diabelli Variations for piano, and, here, the slow movement from his Hammerklavier Sonata. I often heard the pianist Emil Gilels as a teenager, and I loved his spiritual way with Beethoven.

 

Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major, Op. 133: Overtura-Allegro-Fuga by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performed by Melos Quartet Stuttgart

Similarly, Beethoven’s string quartets grew in scope, the wildest being his Grosse Fuge. The first time I heard this in concert it was performed after works by Lutosławski and Berg. The audience, clearly looking forward to some relaxing sounds from their old friend Beethoven after intermission, were in shock; the Grosse Fuge was clearly the most modern sounding work on the program! Its sense of abandon is echoed in similarly striking passages in the last movements of both the Missa and the Ninth Symphony.

 

 

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125: Finale – Presto
Performed by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard

In a way, the Ninth Symphony is the natural continuation of his Missa. Where the Missa deals with God, the Ninth and its jubilant text expands the world to include God and mankind. In the Missa, we pray to God for peace. In the Ninth, Beethoven is asking us to live as brothers—a humanistic view of peace, where we, and not just God, bear responsibility for it. So, to represent these two complementary ideas, ideally our performance should end with the Ninth Symphony, as it did when the first movements from the Missa were premiered! This is from our recordings of all Beethoven's works for orchestra, which was our first major recording project.


About the Curator

Thomas Dausgaard is chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He is also honorary conductor of Orchestra della Toscana (ORT) and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. In 2019 Mr. Dausgaard begins his appointment as music director of the Seattle Symphony. He is renowned for his creativity and innovation in programming, the excitement of his live performances, and his extensive catalog of critically acclaimed recordings. Mr. Dausgaard performs with the world’s leading orchestras, appearing in recent seasons with the Munich Philharmonic, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Konzert hausorchester Berlin, Vienna Symphony, London and BBC Symphony Orchestras, L’Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, as well as the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.