Missa solemnis (1856)

By Morten Solvik, Institute of European Studies, Vienna

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“. . .it sprang from the truly fervent faith of my heart, such as I have felt since my childhood. Genitum non factum [begotten not made]. I can truly say that my mass has been more prayed than composed.”

Thus did Franz Liszt (1811-1886) describe the genesis of his Missa solemnis, written for the consecration of the basilica at Esztergom [Gran], Hungary in August 1856. The ceremony marked the long-awaited completion of the cathedral, whose opening was attended by not only the leading clergy of Hungary but also Emperor Franz Joseph himself. It was a grand occasion and an especially poignant one for Liszt who, returning to his native country for the first time after nearly a decade, was greeted like a national hero.

To many of his critics Liszt’s Missa solemnis represented a cynical attempt on the part of the composer to promote his popularity and, what was worse, to undermine sacred music with the chromatic confusions and far-too-worldly implications of the New German School, “to smuggle the Venusberg [of Wagner’s Tannhäuser] into church music,” as Liszt himself paraphrased it. Yet the objections surrounding this mass as an artistic-political event ignored a genuinely spiritual vein in the composer’s worldview. For all of his earthly passions, Liszt long nurtured a deep respect for Christianity and a mystical understanding of his mission as a composer. As he once wrote to Richard Wagner: “Everything is transitory except the Word of God, which is eternal—and the Word of God reveals itself in the creations of Genius.” Though it is difficult to separate the pious tones of this remark from the transcendental aspirations of the Romantic artist, there was clearly more to Liszt’s position than mere posturing. Not only did a number of his works touch on religious subjects (for instance, the Harmonies poétiques et religeuses), his life’s path took him directly into the folds of the Catholic Church. After joining the lower orders as a minor cleric in 1865, he reflected on his decision as follows: “Convinced as I was that this act would strengthen me on the right road, I accomplished it without effort, in all simplicity and uprightness of intention. Moreover it agrees with all the antecedents of my youth, as well as with the development that my work of musical composition has taken. . .”

Liszt, indeed, had embarked on a series of religious works during these years, focusing on the legends of St. Cecilia, St. Elizabeth, St. Francis and the massive oratorio, Christus. It was not, however, the first time he had considered compositions of this nature. Already in 1834 he had penned an essay “On the Future of Church Music” that called for a new kind of musical composition to “unite on a colossal scale the theater and the church.” Liszt emphasized not the dogmatic but rather the experiential rendering of religious content, a means of presentation capable of moving the audience. The Missa solemnis represented his first large-scale attempt at just such a work.

The Missa is divided into the traditional liturgical sections (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei), united by a number of important musical ideas that appear in various movements. The restless crossing motive at the opening of the Kyrie returns at the end of the Agnus Dei, closing off the form of the entire work in a cyclical gesture. More significant is the use of the “Christe” motive (a downward leap followed by rising intervals that end in a chromatic descent), first heard in the Kyrie and making a significant return at the opening of the Agnus Dei. The main idea of the Credo (“I believe”) is constructed from a combination of the Kyrie motive and the Christe motive, a symbolic rendering of the pillars of Christian faith. In all, the composer’s manipulation of thematic material shows a remarkable sensitivity to text and representation, as well as a knack for the dramatic effect that he had proclaimed had become a necessity for the future of sacred music. As he once wrote: “The church composer is also preacher and priest, and where the Word no longer suffices for the feeling, it is sound that takes it aloft and transfigures it.”