22 April 2020
December of this year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth. Conductors all over the world have programmed his works for their 2020 concerts. My colleague Scott Humphries and I were planning an all Beethoven concert with the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as a triumphant finale to this academic year. Sadly, due to the Coronavirus, we evacuated all our students and began remote teaching just after spring break, which meant the cancellation of our remaining performances for the semester.
The photo above shows the beginning stages of my score study on the Mass in C, which I was preparing to conduct in May. I took this photo the day our students were sent home and I knew the concert would not occur. Having to halt my score study on this wonderful opus felt like a punch in the gut. I will be on sabbatical leave in the fall when our students (hopefully) return, so I quickly set about rescheduling the Mass performance for March 14, 2021. We’re calling it Beethoven’s Belated Birthday Bash! With a solid date on the calendar, I find my spirits lifted and I have a sense of hope looking ahead. Even though none of us knows precisely when this COVID-19 health crisis will diminish to the point where we can begin rehearsals and performances again, surely we can reasonably expect to be out of grave danger by February and March of next year.
Today, I opened my score again, cranked up my favorite recording (John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir with Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique) and basked in the glory of this beautiful Mass. Composed in 1807, this was a ground-breaking work at the time and launched Beethoven’s emerging robust and grandiose choral-symphonic style that would become fully formed in his 1819 Missa Solemnis and the 9th (“Choral”) Symphony five years before his death. These are great works to be sure, but I love the Mass in C because it represents his bold departure from the more “reigned in” and understated piety of masses by his predecessors Mozart and Haydn. The Mass in C is largely serene, but there are flashes of turbulence and unbridled fury: colorful glimpses of the Beethoven we all know and love. The Sturm und Drang was beginning to well up and spill over.
Beethoven’s fresh new interpretation of this standard and familiar lyric seems to me a perfect vessel through which we might all emerge thankful, triumphant, yet humbled from this horrifying pandemic. As with all Latin masses, the piece begins with a cry for God’s mercy. Next comes the revelation of God’s glory, followed by the proclamation of our creed as believers. We bow before the Almighty and cry “Sanctus” and “Hosanna,” after which we plead with the Lamb of God for deliverance. The entire work closes with a beautiful setting of the “Dona Nobis Pacem” text (Grant us Peace). Indeed, this seems a fitting progression of emotions for the months following these long-standing and necessary stay-at-home orders. Any Mass would do, I suppose. All the lyrics are the same; but, Beethoven’s passionate awe-filled setting is the right one for this occasion, I believe. As I listen, I’m amazed at how this composer, born 250 years ago, could so poignantly express what we are all feeling during these days of uncertainty: everything from bowing on our knees in prayer to shaking our fists in anger toward Heaven.
For my students, our University, and this lovely community — may our performance mark a grand exodus from the 2019-2020 season of fear and isolation. May this be our Happy Birthday anthem — not only to Beethoven, but to ourselves as we are born anew into good health, warm embraces, and a fresh perspective on all our blessings.
Dona nobis pacem. Amen.