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11 - God and the Voice of Beethoven

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

I begin by apologizing to Wilfrid Mellers for inverting the title of his 1983 book Beethoven and the Voice of God. My parody ends there, for Mellers's book has indeed been inspirational for this essay: he brings so much to bear upon Beethoven, and he is unfailingly earnest and imaginative throughout. But whereas Mellers traces Beethoven's own earnest and imaginative attempts to find the voice of God throughout his compositional career, I wish to explore what happens to Beethoven's voice when he attempts to address or represent the Deity. So while Mellers traces a path that starts with the op. 2 piano sonatas and culminates in the later piano music and the Missa solemnis, I shall restrict myself mostly to the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis, those late works whose texts invite the composer to stage encounters with God.

Deus Omnipotens

The Mass text gives Beethoven ample opportunities to address God, as in this passage from the Gloria, which calls out to God with three different appellations: “Domine Deus” (“O Lord God”), “Rex coelestis” (“King of the heavens”), and “Deus pater omnipotens” (“God, all-powerful Father”). In Beethoven's earlier Mass in C, op. 86, from 1807, the tenor soloist sings these three names of God, which are followed by a flash of divine power in the form of a forte choral echo of “Deus omnipotens,” accompanied by a blast of brass (mm. 89–99).

What happens in the Missa solemnis is of a different order entirely (see mm. 176–90). In measure 185, Beethoven unleashes a greatly sustained fff blast of orchestral “all-power” on the word “omnipotens,” a sound that includes the first use in the entire work of the three trombones. The result is sonically overpowering, but the effect of overwhelming transcendence is also projected by the sustained harmony on the beginning of the word “omnipotens,” a B-flat seventh chord that is reinterpreted as an augmented sixth resolving to the dominant of D.

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The New Beethoven
Evolution, Analysis, Interpretation
, pp. 244 - 258
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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