Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Missa Solemnis: closing remarks on Beethoven's last page

The Missa Solemnis of Beethoven is the most glorious musical work known to me. Yes, I am including all of the magesterial works of Bach, name it. I have said to many colleagues that if I were only given one work to conduct for the rest of my life, it would be Beethoven's great Mass in D major.

And one of the most fascinating aspects of this work is how it concludes. Every conductor grapples with it. Why not a soft ending (as with his only other mass, the Mass in C major? Why not the big ending, as the composer did soon afterwards with his Ninth Symphony?

No, instead it is a "scratch-your-head" conclusion, which doesn’t end in a hush, nor does it end with a rush.

Does the music just stop?
Or does it end with a question mark?

For weeks, I thought to myself:
- - - - - -what am I going to do with those last four bars?
Slow down? crescendo? add more weight to the final two chords?
(The last two chords of his Pastoral Symphony have also caused many conductors to shake their heads as they walk off stage.)

Again and again, the answer that came down to me was the same – let it be. Let it be. Beethoven knows what he’s doing.

In search of an answer, I started at the end of the mass and worked backwards. Yes, backwards. Surely it would appear to me, somewhere. For in every work of Beethoven’s there are always questions, and he never fails to answer them. It’s one of the things that make him great. He never leaves us hanging.

The Agnus Dei is certainly revelatory, daring even, but the answer was not to be found there. So I continued my retrograde until I reached the Osanna. Its concluding bars are so earth-shattering, so final that I wanted to ask the same question Robert Shaw suggested of the Gloria's conclusion: ‘why do we have to go on from here?’

And then it hit me – in many ways, with the end of Osanna, the piece as we know it has come to an end. The chorus sits. The violas and flutes sing. The basses chant ‘benedictus.’ And then there is the violin . . .that violin . . . Beethoven has transported us into a new realm. A new piece has begun. Nothing is as it once was.

And maybe this is why that, at the conclusion of our first performance, then again on the following night, the audience seemed to linger in that last glow of D major. Indeed, they did not seem perplexed at all, nor were they uncomfortable; there was no shifting, no wondering. They seemed to welcome the silence.

For me, the hardest silence was in the week that followed. It has always been difficult for me to sleep after concerts, but after our Missa Solemnis, I couldn’t do anything; even putting one foot in front of the other was a significant challenge. We had climbed Beethoven's Everest together, and now I’d forgotten how to walk. To this day, I still wake up with passages from the great mass running through my head. How lucky we are, how fortunate I am, to have had the opportunity to perform this majestic masterpiece. It was an experience I will never forget.

In the days and months ahead, I may come across a member of the chorus – on the street, in a store, on a bus – and we will share that knowing look. Nothing need be said. And we will smile that knowing smile, a recognition that we served Beethoven well. I can think of no higher calling.