For Riccardo Muti, Missa solemnis is ‘the greatest religious sermon in music’

Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Choir, soprano Rosa Feola, contralto Alisa Kolosova, tenor Dmitry Korchak and bass Ildar Abdrazakov in Beethoven's Missa solemnis.

© SF / Marco Borrelli

Riccardo Muti compares Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to “climbing Mount Everest. It is the greatest religious sermon in music. It is the Sistine Chapel of music — a work so complex that it makes every interpreter’s wrists tremble.” 

Given his extreme regard for the work, Muti waited for decades to conduct the masterpiece, which he began studying in the early ’70s. He had hoped to open the 2020-21 season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Missa solemnis, but in-person concerts were canceled, due to the pandemic. Instead, that milestone went to the Salzburg Festival, where Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic in three performances of the work in August 2021.

The Salzburg concerts were met with universal praise. Wilhelm Sinkovicz of Die Presse wrote, “From the first bar you felt it. … Muti handled the work and presented it as faithfully as perhaps no one else can today.”

To cap his final season as music director, Muti will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Missa solemnis on June 23-25, 2023. In an interview recorded in 2022 for WDCB-FM (90.7/90.9), Muti discussed Missa solemnis with journalist Dennis Polkow for the weekly radio series “The Arts Section.”

Dennis Polkow: It has been a longtime wish of yours to do this piece. Could speak about what that experience was like to finally confront this monument of Beethoven for the first time? 

Riccardo Muti: My first score of Missa solemnis has the date of 1973. So it has been with me for all my life, as a musician. I always felt too small, never I felt ready to perform this huge monument, because it’s so deep, so vast. But at a certain point I felt that it was the moment, not to give the definitive, as they say, performance or to discover something that has not been  discovered. But as [a performance] of the result of decades, decades, decades of study.

Fortunately the text, the Latin text of the Missa, is part of my culture, deeply. And the words of the text helped me very much in understanding the music. In fact, we know that Beethoven, when he started to write, to compose the Missa solemnis, he asked a friend to buy two dictionaries, Latin and German, because he wanted know [each] translation. He wanted to know exactly what every word meant. So in fact, in the Missa, you find that Beethoven tries to enrich every note with the deep meaning of every word. [There is] a relationship between music and words that is very, very tight.

Also, he was so moved by the text that even in the [Agnus Dei], when the tenor starts miserere, miserere — have mercy, Beethoven adds a vocal “oh.” That is incredible. So the text is, miserere nobis, miserere, miserere nobis, have mercy on us, etc., etc., have pity. But it makes a sort of invocation, oh. As you say, oh, God, not God. Oh, God. So it’s even deeper. It’s even more full; you are asking really that God help you. It’s not only, God, do this for me. Oh, God. But in the Latin text of the Missa, “oh” before miserere doesn't exist. So Beethoven added that little vowel, that invocational. Miserere was not enough. Oh, miserere. So that is the key to the entire work.

Sometimes when I'm thinking in a negative way, I think, how many conductors have noticed this difference?

Polkow: Details like that?

Muti: This “oh.” That is the key to the entire work.