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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Ludwig von Beethoven is famous for his symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas. But the great German composer's Catholic Mass, which he called the Missa Solemnis, is rarely performed. It's been eclipsed by the better-known Ninth Symphony. But commentator Jan Swafford says the two works together shed light on Beethoven's spiritual side.

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JAN SWAFFORD reporting:

Even if you're a classical music fan, you're listening right now to the greatest piece you've probably never heard. It's the Missa Solemnis, a work Ludwig Von Beethoven spent four of his last years composing. He considered it the crown of his music. Yet from his time to ours, the culminating masterpiece has been, in practice, a gigantic white elephant. Beethoven's mass is nearly an hour and a half long and requires a large chorus, an orchestra and four soloists. A practical little number for the concert hall it's not.

It fits even less comfortably into its supposed setting, a Catholic church service. It amounts to a five movement choral symphony, but it doesn't break down into tidy forms and movements like the symphonies we're use to. Even more than Beethoven's prodigious Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis is so vast in scope and prolific in material that listeners can just get lost in it. In every way, the piece is extreme, extreme in grandeur, in sonic color and power, informal in contrapuntal complexity. It's also extreme in its beauty.

Beethoven was nominally Catholic but no church-goer. In his letters and conversations he didn't seem much interested in the figure of Christ. God, however, interested Beethoven a lot. He studied books about Eastern religions and about revelations of the divine and nature. He quoted to friends a line of the Philosopher Kant: The starry skies above and the moral law beneath. Beethoven had another evocation of God in the form of three aphorisms, said to come from ancient Egypt.

He copied them out and kept them under glass on his writing desk as if he wanted their spirit to pervade everything he composed. The sayings run, I am that which is. I am all that is, that was and that will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil. He is solely found himself in all things owe their being to him alone.

Like those mystical images, the God Beethoven intimates in the Missa Solemnis is not strictly Catholic or even Christian, rather pantheistic and all-encompassing, but not present in the world. Divinity lies beyond the stars, and here we are on Earth. At the same time the Missa Solemnis is full of long lines ascending and descending. The human spirit rising up toward the divine, the divine light descending toward mankind. That idea of a cosmic interchange is embodied in the uncanny moment in the Benedictus that depicts the coming of Christ, the mediator between man and God, as a solo violin descending from the heavens.

For all its singularity, the most surprising thing in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is the last movement, the Onus(ph) Deae. That culminating section of the Catholic mass is a prayer for peace. The last words are dona nobis pacem, give us peace.

Beethoven begins his Dona Nobis with a gentle wilting fugue set in a pastoral atmosphere.

Then something hair-raising happens. Into that pastoral scene, out of nowhere, drums and trumpets intrude. Those sounds of war come closer and closer until the chorus is not praying for peace but crying for it in terror. Almost drowned out by the sound of battle.

Then the chorus's prayer picks up again. But now for all its gentleness, the prayer fraught and uncertain, and so it stays. Just before the end, the drums of war return in the distance before the final impassioned but uncertain plea, give us peace.

Which is to say Beethoven's mighty Missa Solemnis comes down to an unanswered prayer. Whether God has heard us, we don't know, but we do know that in the distance the drums of war are still beating. Did Beethoven ever provide an answer to this unprecedented open ending? I believe he did. His answer is the Ninth Symphony.

Once a fellow composer showed Beethoven a piece of his own on which he had written, Finished with the help of God. Beethoven scribbled under it, Man, help yourself. The famous choral finale of the Ninth Symphony is based on Schiller's Ode to Joy, written at a time of revolution. Those words and Beethoven's music call for humankind to kneel before the creator over the stars, but for answers to turn to one another. In the Ninth Symphony Beethoven proclaims that as comrades, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, we could unite to celebrate Joy, the beautiful God-engendered daughter of Elysium. And that path to peace is bestowed not from above but from within us and among us in universal brotherhood here on Earth. Man, help yourself. That was Beethoven's reply to the unanswered prayer of the Missa Solemnis.

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HANSEN: Jan Swafford is a composer and has written biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms. You can compare and contract passages from the Missa Solemnis and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at our website, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News I'm Liane Hansen.

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