Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: God, Democracy, Difference and Indifference

By Chris O’Malley

‘I must despise the world which that does not know that music is a higher revelation than wisdom and philosophy’
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Music, at least in its acoustic form, creates and awakens resonance, ‘bodily, sensory experiences…[that] may take the shape of images or memories, fleeting fantasies […] emotions, feelings etc.’ (Francesetti, 2019). Its processes orientate us to the present moment and the full range of this moment, as elaborated by Husserl (1960/1989; quoted in Stern, 2003), who talks of a ‘3-part present … the past of the present moment, which is still present; the instant of the present that is passing; and the future of the present moment, which is also in the present.’ Stern attributes to music the most potent power to realise this multi-dimensionality and how ‘the gestalt of a phrase of notes forms while it is happening… [and] how we create in our minds how it could end’ (ibid). Ludwig van Beethoven, whose 250th birthday is being marked this year is, for me, the greatest genius of music’s therapeutic power to transform the lived present, to realise the implications of his motto for Missa Solemnis: ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’

A political prophet of Enlightenment values, secularity and brotherhood, Beethoven late in his life (he died at 57 in 1827), reconciled himself with the task for only the second time, of setting the Mass, compositions embracing which provided many composers of the time with much needed commissions and patronage. Eventually missing the commission deadline by three years, he spent five years in total on the piece, seemingly obsessed with finding expression for the human connection with divinity that transcends religion. His Missa Solemnis (‘Solemn Mass’ – a title given to works that are more elaborate and extensive, as opposed to Missa Brevis settings), catalogued as Opus 123, was eventually performed in April 1824 in St. Petersburg. A subsequent and seemingly lamentable part-performance was then given in Vienna, Beethoven’s hometown, whereat his then total deafness may have acted to save him the shame and anger of hearing his magnum opus so abused. 

A feature of this work is the incredible synthesis of past musical languages (plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, fugue) with then ‘current’ classical tonality and form, blended again with futuristic music – sounds never heard before that implied ‘the life to come’. Here six tiny flecks of sound with silences between them lead to the word «Forever». Taken as a whole, the work perhaps suggests Husserl’s tri-partite present moment writ large, creating a piece-long dimension of all-time. Both Epic and Dramatic, the work presents a fusion of opposing polarities, the hallmark of the ‘higher revelation’ Beethoven speaks of, I believe.

This in-dwelling of opposites is what attracts and moves me in late Beethoven. In the so-called 3rd period, the onset of deafness inspired works manifesting his struggles to reconcile the paradox of being a deaf musician, music in which everything is both one thing and its opposite. For example, profoundly sad melodies can simultaneously convey a currency of joy and acceptance; fast trills (repeated notes) convey the slowing of time and even silence. Gentleness and ferocity co-inhere as does earthiness and rarefaction. This is music emerging from creative indifference; Friedlander’s zero point (1926), finely balanced, integrated, whole. 

Most tellingly and movingly, Missa Solemnis also explores the polarities of the one and the many, the democracy of individual expression against collective utterance, the whole work forming dialectic between the forces of chorus and soloists and the implications of what these opposites stand for. The first entry of the chorus in the opening Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy), forming a massed chord in D major and enunciating in turn the three syllables of Ky-ri-e, is set by Beethoven in the most explicit of ways with regard to this. After the choir have sung the first two syllables forte (loudly), the final one is quietened suddenly giving scope for us to hear a soaring solo voice emerging from the body of the chorus, expressing the imperative of an individual response to the world while also maintaining collective response-ability. 

The piece plays with these processes to wonderful effect. If you listen to just one part of this startlingly original work, start at the beginning where the scene is set, the resonances kindled, the differences and indifference established. For me, the metaphor of the ‘heart’ which Beethoven attached to the work, unites both the lived, pulsating experience of an individual’s living body with the heart which must be the core of the body-politic, the organ of collective belonging and expression. Thankfully, Beethoven lives on to inspire us to find this balance in our organisations, community, and lives.

Among several performances of the piece in 2020, here is a link to one in Oxford I hope to attend; please contact me if you’d like to join me! See:


Francesetti, Gianni, (2019).“The Field Perspective in Clinical Practice: Toward a Theory of Therapeutic Phronesis.”In Handbook for Theory, Research, and Practice in Gestalt Therapy (2nd Edition), ed. P. Brownell, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing;

Friedlaender, Salomo/Mynona (1918/1926). “Schöpferische Indifferenz”, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 10, eds. H. Geerken & D. Thiel. München: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag;

Stern, Daniel. N. & The Boston Change Study Group (2003). “On the Other Side of the Moon: The Import of Implicit Knowledge for Gestalt Therapy.” In Creative License: The Art of Gestalt Therapy, eds. M. Spagnuolo Lobb & N. Amendt-Lyon, Wien: Springer-Verlag.


Chris O’Malley, MSc. UKCP Reg. Gestalt Psychotherapist, B.A. (Hons) Cert. Supervision, SM (GPTI) PGCE, Associate of Trinity College London (ATCL) is a classically-trained pianist, increasingly interested in the role his earlier musical education plays in his therapy work. He regards having listened repeatedly, in his 20’s, to Beethoven’s 3rd-period music (the late piano sonatas and string quartets in particular) as having been the most transformative
therapeutic experiences he has undergone, experiences which paved the way for his eventual entry into gestalt. Chris would like to hear from other musicians and is particularly keen to find a like-minded violinist with whom to explore the Beethoven violin sonatas along with other repertoire.

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