It took Beethoven four years to compose what he considered one of his greatest works, Missa Solemnis, a setting for the Catholic Latin mass. But he never witnessed the performance of the entire work, and the premiere of three of the five movements occurred in a concert hall, not a church, as he had intended. But thanks to conductor Gilbert Levine ’71, Beethoven’s complete work debuted in the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, a place that Beethoven himself knew well, having grown up in nearby Bonn, Germany.
In 2005, Levine conducted the Missa Solemnis in Cologne Cathedral with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir, and four soloists; he produced a program of that concert that will air on PBS in the Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., regions on April 13 to coincide with Pope Benedict’s first visit to the United States. (It will air in other regions on different dates beginning April 6.) In late February Levine screened the PBS program, From Heart to Heart: Beethoven’s Plea for Peace (the title is based on the composer’s notations on his manuscript), in Fine Hall’s Taplin Auditorium. The program includes a recording of the Cologne concert and close-ups of the cathedral’s stained glass and artwork — corresponding to sections of the mass — as well as panoramic views of the inside and outside of the building. As an introduction, Levine gives a brief overview of Beethoven and the Missa Solemnis, and Pope Benedict describes the spiritual underpinnings of the work.
Levine, who has conducted orchestras around the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, and the Hamburg Philharmonic, has produced six other concert-documentaries for PBS. “There are very few concerts on public television,” says Levine. “Ours have succeeded because we give the viewer enough historical information, but not too much. We don’t want to detract from the musical experience itself.”
Levine’s long friendship with Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who knighted Levine in 1994, has helped the conductor approach the work of Beethoven and other composers “in a deeper way,” he says. He first met the pope in 1987, soon after Levine had taken over as artistic director and principal conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic, and later he performed at the pope’s 10th anniversary, at the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust, and at the Papal Concert of Reconciliation. The pope, said Levine, who is Jewish, believed music could “bring people of different faiths together.” As a result of that friendship, Levine says, he looks to better understand composers’ spiritual lives. Without that friendship, he says, “I wouldn’t have had the spiritual tools to understand Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.”