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In book ten of the Confessions, Saint Augustine explores the mystery of memory. At one point he exclaims: “Great is the power of memory, a thing, O my God, to be in awe of, a profound and immeasurable multiplicity; and this thing is my mind, this thing am I.”

Among the “immeasurable multiplicities” we remember are events deeply significant, even life-changing; other recollections are seemingly trivial, of little import. And part of the mystery of memory is that events and persons suddenly appear, unbidden, sometimes after decades of forgetfulness. I recently remembered an incident, decidedly trivial, from more than sixty years ago: While riding a bus to a Fordham Glee Club concert, I was reading a book by the once well-known psychiatrist Karl Stern. What strangely remained embedded in my memory was Stern’s passing remark that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was a transcendent masterpiece. I noted it, and promptly forgot it.

Over the years, though I came to appreciate and enjoy so much of Beethoven’s music, somehow the Missa Solemnis remained beyond my ken. To me it seemed excessively showy and hyperbolic, with little genuine religious sensibility. Not that I didn’t try to appreciate it. I bought a recording by Leonard Bernstein, but it did nothing to disabuse me of my initial unfavorable impressions. Later I purchased John Eliot Gardiner’s swift, no-nonsense version. I remained unmoved. I even attended one of the rare live performances. Yet after every attempt I found myself returning with relief to Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Recently, however, I came upon the newly remastered version of the 1966 recording of the Missa Solemnis by Herbert von Karajan. It is available both on CD and Blu-ray audio disc. The result has an extraordinary clarity of sound. There is a flow and coherence to von Karajan’s interpretation; the various parts of the Mass, however different in musical form and rhetoric, weave together seamlessly. And the stellar soloists—Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, and Walter Berry—achieve a remarkable integration as one voice singing praise to God. The result is stunning and, yes, seamless.

What is especially striking about the performance is its prayerfulness. Von Karajan's rendition allowed me to experience the Missa Solemnis as prayer for the first time—prayer in many registers. The exuberance of the “Gloria” would make von Balthasar blush. During the “Et vitam venturi saeculi” of the “Credo,” an extended fugue swells to a choral affirmation of mystery, before ending with the soloists’ rapt “Amen.” The baritone’s plangent “Miserere” during the “Agnus Dei” is said by some to be an expression of Beethoven’s own anguish over the turmoil of his life; a little later, the intrusion of martial music threatens to overwhelm a plaintive “dona nobis pacem”—before yielding to a transcending hope.

In my opinion, the keystone of this vast musical arch is, fittingly, the central section of the “Credo.” Here we are graced with an “Et incarnatus” whose tenderness rivals Mozart and a “Passus et sepultus” whose utter grief conjures Bach. But the resplendent “et HOMO factus est,” declaimed in D major, is all Beethoven. Here the composer of the “Eroica” symphony, the passionate advocate of human dignity and liberation in Fidelio, is fully on display.

Catholic composer James MacMillan has spoken of Beethoven’s lifelong “search for justice,” which in this Mass “is tempered with a profound knowledge of divine mercy.” He calls the Missa Solemnis “one of the most deeply Catholic works ever written.” I would add that I find it a magnificent affirmation of Catholic humanism, accenting at its midpoint the good news, both scandalous and salvific, that God became man.

Originally intended to adorn the festivities for the installation of Beethoven’s pupil and patron, Archduke Rudolf, as archbishop of Olmütz in March of 1820, the Mass was not completed until 1823. Beethoven considered it his greatest work, though the Ninth Symphony and the last quartets were still to come.

In the chorus straining to encompass the entire diapason of sound, from piano to fortissimo, one hears clear intimations of the great choral conclusion to the Ninth Symphony. Indeed, the range from lamentation to exultation surpasses even that masterpiece. One can only imagine how the choristers, challenged to the utmost, might have echoed the complaint of the violinist who thought a passage in one of Beethoven’s string quartets was too taxing. To whom the maestro replied gruffly: “When I composed that passage, I was conscious of being inspired by God Almighty. Do you think I can consider your puny little fiddle when he speaks to me?” 

In the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s titanic subjectivity seems chastened by suffering and transformed by his engagement with the graced objectivity of liturgical text and tradition. His diaries and notebooks reveal that he had the text of the Mass carefully translated so he could study it closely, and that he explored the religious music of Palestrina and Handel, Haydn and Cherubini in constructing his own approach. The framework that the Mass provided did not constrict him, but inspired and oriented his creativity. At the head of his score he inscribed the words: “From the heart—may it go to the heart.”

And so I have finally come to appreciate and affirm what Dr. Stern tried to teach me during that dimly-remembered bus ride sixty-three years ago. But then, I’ve always been a slow learner.

Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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