Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 3 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Beethoven: Kyrie from Mass in C-major, Opus 86 (1807)

Beethoven composed his Kyrie in C-major twenty-six years after Mozart composed his Kyrie in D-minor. Here is a page from Beethoven's score:

We see instrumental notes aplenty, but they are not elaboration, as in Bach, and not embellishment as in Mozart. Rather, they provide straightforward accompaniment for the text, here sung by both a four-part chorus and four solo voices. That is, with their moving notes the instruments are essentially sounding out the harmonies being sung by the voices. This direct presentation results in a more fully accessible sound in Beethoven than in our other two composers.

One thing is quite new in Beethoven's Kyrie as compared to the previous two Kyries we have considered, namely, his expression markings. Notice the violin parts. They begin with a crescendo from p, soft (on the preceding page) to f, loud; then we encounter five successive markings of sf, meaning strongly accented; then diminuendo to pp, very soft; then two "hairpins" indicating crescendo and decrescendo; then crescendo poco a poco, louder little by little; leading finally, a few measures into the succeeding page, to ff, very loud.

Bach's manuscripts bear very few expression markings. Mozart's bear some. Beethoven here employs thirteen expression marks in a span of a dozen measures. Musical expression of this kind is characteristic of the "Romantic" style of composing that Beethoven pioneered.

Another basic characteristic of Beethoven's music is frequent cadences, that is, harmonic events in which music settles into a home key. His cadences are typically frequent enough to keep his home key within reach of our short-term memories. In between cadences Beethoven takes us on creative harmonic adventures. But in this Kyrie Beethoven's changing harmonies never carry us more than ten measures away from a decisive cadence.

In the sample page posted above, for example, Beethoven has two cadences into E major, the home key for this particular section of his piece. The page begins with a cadence (E in the Continuo, with G-sharps in the strings and solo voices), with another cadence in the next-to-last measure (E in the Continuo, with Es and G-sharps throughout other parts): two cadences within a span of ten measures. And so on this particular page we are never more than five measures away from a preceding or upcoming tonal homecoming.

I believe that this firm and frequent harmonic anchorage helps account for Beethoven's unrivaled popularity among lovers of classical music. As an illustration of this popularity, a single escutcheon is displayed above the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall, and it bears the name Beethoven.

The prevailing key of Beethoven's Kyrie is C major. Yet on the first page of the piece, just after the first solo voice enters, minor tonality casts its shadow. Even in the midst of the second section—the Christe section, in which composers tend toward major—we hear repeated touches of minor. I feel that the visitations of minor we hear throughout the Kyrie express Beethoven's personal sense of our human need for mercy.

As for Beethoven's many expression markings in this Kyrie, we might ask, expression of what? The answer, I think, is expression of Beethoven's own, deeply personal religious sensibility.

Beethoven was born into a Roman Catholic family, largely dysfunctional. We have no record of Beethoven's attendance at Mass or Confession. We have, however, testimony from his nephew and ward that he and Beethoven prayed together every morning and evening.1

Bach was steeped from birth in Lutheranism. Mozart was liturgical from the outset. Beethoven came to his religious sensibility late, after intense struggle and intentional reading in both western and eastern religious literature. For instance, he transcribed into his daybook a German translation of these lines from a lengthy poem written by an Oxford scholar of Sanskrit scripture:2

        Spirit of Spirits, who through every part
        Of space expanded and of endless time,
        Beyond the stretch of lab'ring thought sublime,
        Badst uproar into beauteous order start,
        Before Heav'n was, Thou art:
        Ere spheres beneath us roll'd or spheres above,
        Ere earth in firmamental ether hung,
        Thou satst alone; till, through thy mystic Love,
        Things unexisting to existence sprung,
        And grateful descant sung.
        What first impell'd thee to exert thy might?
        Goodness unlimited. What glorious light
        Thy pow'r directed? Wisdom without bound.
        What prov'd it first? Oh! guide my fancy right;
        Oh! raise from cumbrous ground
        My soul in rapture drown'd,
        That fearless it may soar on wings of fire;
        For Thou, who only knowest, Thou only canst inspire.

When Beethoven's religious convictions at last took root they were personal, profound, and powerful, even as they were eclectic, unorthodox, and idiosyncratic. In the end he found himself able to express his personal religion through the liturgy of the Catholic Mass.

We are greatly fortunate to have Beethoven's own words concerning the Kyrie in C-major from a letter to his publisher:
The general character of the Kyrie is inward submission, whence inward religious feelings arise—"God have mercy upon us"—yet without sadness. Gentleness lies at the basis of the whole...; indeed, serenity prevails overall. The Catholic goes to church on Sundays bedecked with festive serenity, and the Kyrie is the introduction to the entire Mass.3
I hear Beethoven's Kyrie as an offering of his heart to God. And more than heart. I think of the marvelous German word Gemüt. Translators often trivialize the word by rendering it simply as heart or mind. But in Cassell's German Dictionary the definition of Gemüt reads as follows: "mind, soul, heart, disposition, spirit, feeling, temperament."

I feel that in this Kyrie Beethoven is offering up his whole self to God.


One might especially listen (a) for the opening phrase—to my ears welcoming, aspiring, glowing with devotion—and for the return of that same phrase at the beginning of the third section; (b) for Beethoven's expressive touches of minor throughout, like transient clouds amidst the prevailing major; and (c) for the many occurrences of musical expression—accents and crescendos and diminuendos, contrasts of loud and soft.

Recordings of the Beethoven Kyrie are available free at for any who sign on. I particularly enjoy the performance conducted by Helmut Rilling. Click on Browse, then type in the Search box "beethoven, mass in c major"; click on Show All Results; then click on the image of a red-and-orange album cover picturing an angel playing a lute. The Kyrie is the first movement of the Mass in C-major.

(Concluded in Part 4 of this 4-part posting)

1. Barry Cooper, ed., The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven's Life and Music (Thames and Hudson, 1991), p.147.
2. Sir William Jones, "A Hymn to Narayena" (1785). See Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays (Harvard University Press, 1988), "Beethoven's Tagebuch," pp.266–67.
3. Joseph Schmidt-Görg, Ludwig van Beethoven (Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, 1970), pp.190–91; my translation.


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