The Power of "Omnipotens": A Study of the Gloria of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

Article excerpt

IT IS QUITE APPROPRIATE THAT THE WORD "OMNIPOTENS" ("omnipotent") should occasion the most powerful gesture in Beethoven's Missa solemnis (see Example Ib). Beethoven's concern with effective word-painting in this work is much discussed in the literature. The most comprehensive analysis of Beethoven's use of word-painting in the Missa solemnis to date is contained in Warren Kirkendale's "New Roads to Old Ideas in Beethoven's Missa solemnis.'^ Kirkendale describes almost every note of this mass as part of a traditional formula for mass settings (these kinds of traditional formulas are called topoi).2 "At the invocation of the 'Pater omnipotens,'" he writes:

God is again depicted in music. We are not surprised that Beethoven realizes the omnipotence much more vehemently than his predecessors do. The familiar downward leap of an octave on "omnipotens" is stretched here to a twelfth - a huge, powerful gesture akin to the style of the heroic opera of the time. Beethoven also reserved the first entry of the trombones for the one word "omnipotens," fff (measures 185ff.).3

In addition to this, Kirkendale cites "the emphasis of Omnipotens' by a long, sustained note on the first syllable" as traditional.4

Kirkendale's account is a good place for us to start our consideration of this important and very striking passage. While I do not in any way dispute Kirkendale's highly persuasive efforts to document Beethoven's use of traditional formulas (i.e. topoi} in this passage and throughout the Missa solemnis, I do feel that, since he concentrated on connecting this passage with elements of topoi in keeping with the thesis of his paper (the Missa solemnis as a work steeped in tradition), and also perhaps because of the breadth of his article (covering the entire mass), Kirkendale omitted description of many of the features that would serve to show the uniqueness of the passage at issue in this article. I will cite the work of other scholars to fill in some important details, and then contribute my own theory as to the particular structural and spiritual meaning of this setting of the "Almighty Father." The following passages are from John F. Ohl's article in The Choral Journal 5 and Donald Francis Tovey's famous Essays in Musical Analysis?

... there is a quick rise to a shattering climax at "Pater omnipotens," with the first use of the trombones, and a powerful modulation as the chorus prostrates itself at the mention of God's omnipotence.7

...the words "Pater omnipotens" call forth the full power of the orchestra, the first entry of the trombones, the first use of the full organ with pedals, and one of the mightiest modulations Beethoven ever wrote.8

To recapitulate what has been mentioned to this point: 1) There is a long note at the first syllable of the word "omnipotens"; 2) this is scored for full chorus and full orchestra, fff, including the first appearance of the trombones and first use of the full organ with pedals; 3) it is followed by a leap of a twelfth;9 and 4) this moment is a "shattering climax"10 and perhaps "one of the mightiest modulations Beethoven ever wrote."11 In addition, we are left with the wonderful image of the chorus "prostratting] itself at the mention of God's omnipotence."12

Even with this description, we have barely scratched the surface of what gives this passage its remarkable power. In the following excerpt from Martin Cooper's study of Beethoven's last decade, I have added emphasis to the important comments on Beethoven's use of rhythmic displacement and also a particular, special kind of modulation on the word "omnipotens":

At the word "omnipotens" in the phrase "Deus Pater omnipotens" there is a triple forte climax, where the trombones make their appearance for the first time in the Mass (measure 186 [sic m. 185, beat 31), with both orchestra and chorus characteristically anticipating the strong first beat of the measure. The harmony remains for three measures that of the dominant seventh of E-flat and then, revealing the fact that this is an augmented 6th on the flat submediant of D, expands the sopranos rising and the basses dropping a semitone to A, and so to a brusque D major cadence. …