"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beethoven's Mass in C and Text Painting

When I started this blog about a year ago, I intended to talk about a variety of topics. Faith-related topics and political posts are what have primarily emerged. One area that I have not given much time to is music.
Analyzing music from a structural and theoretical standpoint is great fun. But even more so, I enjoy analyzing the text painting (illustration of the words by the music) a composer does. This is particularly true of the Church's music. One of my favorite examples is the Credo from the Mass in C. Some of these examples my be somewhat incidental, but a number of them are unmistakable. Without further ado...here they are!

The first notable example comes at the line "Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum Verum de deo Vero" "God of God, Light of light, True God of True God. The music during these words is not necessarily painting the text, but the music prior to it is a great signal that Beethoven understood the claims of this part of the Creed. First, there are at this moment three beats per measure. The three measures preceeding the word "Deum" each have a dotted half note (3 beats) in them. So you have three measures, three chords, and each of them equalling three beats. What could that number of "threes" mean? No doubt as the choir begins to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is God, the doctrine of the Trinity is being affirmed.
But it isn't simply the meter and rhythm that is important. Each of the three chords are E Flat major ones. E flat is the key of royalty for Beethoven. His third symphony, the Eroica, was written in memory of the great Napolean Bonaparte. His fifth concerto, the Emporer, is written in E flat. This is Beethoven's admission of whom Jesus, king of the world and co-eternal with his Father.

The second noticeable example of text painting is "Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis"..."Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven".

The words prior to "descendit" are sung by the entire choir twice. Both times the direction of the melody is similar. However, the first time it is in a major key. The second time is is very definitely in the parallel minor. While it is incorrect to assert that Major keys are happy keys and Minor ones are sad, it is true that there is a much darker quality to the minor. Why? The text says it all. It is in one sense a joyful thing that Christ visited the earth, but we know the story. He came first to die and bear the evil of the world in his body and soul.
The "descendit de caelis" is marked both times it occurs by descending intervals-the music beginning higher and dropping markedly lower.

A third example are the words "passus est." "He Suffered." One of the ways music shows suffering is through the use of half-steps in one voice. The bass line features nothing but that on this line.

"Et resurrexit and et ascendit"-the resurrection and ascension are both marked by upward motions in the direction of the music.

Lastly, the line "judicare vivos et mortuuos" "to judge the living and the dead" is marked by strong syncopation (notes off the beat) in both choir and orchestra. It sounds harsh and uncomfortable. Divine judgment would be just that.

I'm sure there are multiple others I've overlooked or am simply not bright enough to see. But this is an awesome piece of music overall and the Credo is particularly incredible. I strongly urge anyone who hasn't heard it to go on youtube and check it out!

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