Beethoven began composing the Missa solemnis in 1819, when he learned that his patron (and pupil) Archduke Rudolph was going to be appointed Cardinal Archbishop of Olmütz. The plan was for the mass to be ready for performance at the enthronement celebrations in March 1820, but one year proved to be too little time. It wasn’t until almost three years later, in January 1823, that Beethoven was able to complete the work.
As might be expected, it was unparalleled in every respect – although composed for use during church services, even Beethoven’s contemporaries found that it exceeded the bounds of the genre. Beethoven himself was quite aware of both the dimensions and the importance of the work: in a letter he described it as ‘my greatest work’. It is also a work which over its course encompasses great contrasts: from the solemnity of the Kyrie and the intense excitement at the opening of the Gloria to the disturbing intimations of war during the closing Dona nobis pacem.
Originally founded with the aim of performing the choral works of Bach, the Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki are now taking another great leap, after their recent release of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Described as ‘refreshingly open-hearted, spontaneous and natural’ their interpretation received a 2017 Gramophone Award. Joined by an eminent quartet of vocal soloists, the team now applies its expertise in period performance to Beethoven’s masterpiece.