Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Walking home after choir one night my friend Barbara and I agreed the hardest piece we’ve ever done was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The soprano part in that is so brutal I actually spent time researching whether or not a soprano had pissed Beethoven off to the point where he’d want to punish the soprano section. And, as a matter of fact, I did uncover an ugly side to Beethoven involving a woman.

The year Beethoven started working on the Missa Solemnis he had suffered a temporary setback in a long, drawn-out custody battle with his sister-in-law Johanna for his nephew Karl. It was a fight that got so ugly that Beethoven’s biographers continue to apologize for him to this day. Although Beethoven would ultimately gain custody as a result of his stunning cruelty, in 1819, Johanna was awarded guardianship of Karl.

So he’s working on the Missa Solemnis, he’s enraged about losing Karl to Johanna and perhaps feeling powerless—maybe either consciously or unconsciously he was getting back at Johanna through us. We’re her stand-in. In the piece, he makes the sopranos go up to a high b flat and then he has us stay there for I don’t remember how many measures. A lot. It’s tiring. He also makes us sing it forte (loud) which is even more tiring and, if you’re not careful, painful. He has us do this over and over throughout the piece. It’s like he’s standing there saying, “Take that! And that! And that!”

Beethoven would win Karl back, but the poor kid loved his mother. He visited her in secret, which for some reason did not inspire Beethoven’s pity. Instead, he was so oblivious and unsympathetic and miserable to live with that in 1826 Karl tried to kill himself. When Karl recovered he asked to be taken back to his mother. Beethoven died less than a year later, after receiving a case of wine from his publisher to celebrate the publication of the Missa Solemnis. “Pity—Pity—too late!” were his final words from his deathbed.

I took this heading into choir practice. Now we’re working on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, an absolutely magnificent but also very challenging piece (not in painful way, though). It’s what got me and Barbara talking about which was the hardest piece we’ve ever done.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

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