Handel’s Messiah as Model and Source for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Amy Carr-Richardson


Beethoven had the highest regard for Handel, claiming on more than one occasion “he was the greatest composer who ever lived.” Beethoven’s  knowledge of the earlier composer’s music was considerable. In addition to the direct influence from Handel’s music that may be traced with Beethoven’s variations on one of his themes, direct transcriptions of his fugues, or the general evocation of Handel’s style in Beethoven’s choral fugues, this article proposes that Beethoven may have borrowed specific musical ideas from Handel’s Messiah and reworked them for use in his own Missa Solemnis.

The method by which Beethoven may have adapted materials from Handel’s music includes the use of composite melodies, whereby a single melodic line is presented by different voices and in different registers. Sketches for the Gloria of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis indicate that Beethoven considered using this type of voice-leading technique in adapting the opening melody from Handel’s chorus “And the Glory of the Lord.” Analytical examples illustrate how these composite statements of the borrowed melody could have been incorporated in the Missa Solemnis, and further, how the fugal theme of Beethoven’s Gloria may consist of a ”composed out” version of Handel’s theme. Beethoven’s music plays on  the original imitative relationships found in Handel’s “Glory” chorus and  extends them, in an abstract sense, by creating counterpoint from the  borrowed melody.

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