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Beethoven: Retracing His Life as a Man and Artist

Tomorrow marks 250 years since the baptism of the great German composer, considered the last of the Classics and the first of the Romantics: Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn 1770 – Vienna 1827).

Retracing his life as a man and artist, through his family, economic and character problems, the seriousness of his training and his artistic work, his unhappy sentimental experiences and friendships, his sufferings due to progressive deafness in mature age, we can distinguish three major stages: the early years in Bonn, up to the move to Vienna (1792); the central period, up to the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament (1802); full maturity and great creative fecundity, until death. Beethoven for some recalls especially For Elise, the Piano Moonlight Sonata, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Ode to joy from Symphony No. 9; but his compositional corpus includes piano works (sonatas, variations, etc.), chamber music, symphonies (brought to an unsurpassed level), string quartets, concerts, religious music, music for the stage and the only opera.

The Vatican commemorated the great maestro last month with a bimetallic 5 Euro coin and a 1.15 Euro stamp. Fifty years ago, on the afternoon of May 23, 1970, there was another “enchanting moment” at the Vatican, as Paul VI said before taking his farewell, feeling “moved and thoughtful” due to the performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in D major for four solo voices, chorus and orchestra, Op. 123 in St Peter’s Basilica in his presence.

The “master of the house” also said at the end of the concert: “Thus We have enjoyed, under this dome, a meeting of giants of human genius, Michelangelo and Beethoven, both exalted by their work in the same momentum of incomparable offer of their talent to humanity open to the boundless horizons of the religious world. At the end of this sacred and artistic event let the word be to Ludwig van Beethoven himself: “During the work on this Grand Mass my main purpose was to evoke in both the singers and the listeners religious sentiments and to instill them permanently.” And also: this work, ‘coming from the heart, may it reach the heart’” (Paul VI, Speech during the “Missa solemnis” by Beethoven, May 23, 1970).

That singular initiative was a tribute from Italian Radio and Television, which wanted to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the priesthood of Paul VI — ordained on May 29, 1920, in the cathedral of Brescia by Bishop Giacinto Gaggia — and celebrate the memory of the second centenary of Beethoven’s birth. At least two characteristics make it an event of great importance: for the first time concert music resounds in the Vatican Basilica, with all the inevitable acoustic defects of the vast and complex building; the performance is broadcast to more than 300 million people through the 144 television stations connected to RAI and its eight cameras, regulated by Franco Zeffirelli.

Poor Beethoven could never have imagined such pomp for the performance of his Mass, with which he tried to obtain some modest economic result, with little success. Few subscribers, in fact, replied to the letter that the maestro sent to the various European courts to sell a copy of the score: Tsar Alexander I, King of France Louis XVIII, King of Saxony Frederick August I, il Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt Louis I, the Prussian prince Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł, the director of the Society of Saint Cecilia in Frankfurt and someone else.

Like the smaller Mass in C major, Op. 86, this work was also conceived for an occasion: the episcopal consecration of his illustrious pupil and great friend, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, youngest brother of the Emperor, who was appointed archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia. “The day on which a High Mass composed by me,” Beethoven wrote to the archduke on June 4, 1819, “is performed during the ceremonies solemnized for Your Imperial Highness, will be the most glorious day of my life.” (in E. Anderson, The Letters of Beethoven, London 1961, pp. 814-815).

But the composition, which began in autumn 1818, was not ready in time for the great day in March 1820, and was only partially heard (Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei) on May 7, 1824, in Vienna, together with the Symphony No. 9. The first complete performance took place on April 18, 1824, at the Philharmonic Society in Petersburg, thanks to Prince Nikolai Galitzin.

We should mention the usual five parts that make up the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei); or deepen the sources of the sacred polyphonic tradition, which inspired Beethoven while inventing something new; or discuss the two most important judgments of this work: that one of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), according to whom the composer here renounces the thematic elaboration, and that one of the French musicologist Jean Chantavoine (1877-1952), according to whom the Missa possesses a humanistic and rationalistic character, typical of the Enlightenment, rather than liturgical.

But we like to conclude with what Benedict XVI stated in a video message in German about this monumental score, performed on July 29, 2005, in the Cologne Cathedral, in view of the World Youth Day of that year: “Even for Beethoven, a man who struggles and suffers in a time of change, it was evidently an interior necessity […] to create a high mass […]. The Missa solemnis is no longer liturgical music in the proper sense. […] Even the faith of the Church is now no longer present as an obvious fact. The words of man’s prayer now become ways of fighting for God, of passion for God and for oneself […]. In this sense, the Missa solemnis is an ever new touching testimony of a faith that seeks, that does not let God escape, and that through the prayer of the centuries reaches Him again.”

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