Completed in 1807, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major came seventeen years before the premiere of the monumental Missa solemnis. In its way, it is a work which is equally mould-shattering.
Beethoven, who seldom attended church, considered music to be “the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life…the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.” His Mass in C Major moves away from dogma to embrace the free, all-encompassing sanctity of the individual. A serene, intimate contemplation of the divine, the work’s five movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) inhabit the dramatic world of the symphony. Beethoven told his publisher, “I do not like to talk about my Mass, or, generally, about myself, but I believe that I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated before.” On other occasions, when describing the Mass, he wrote, “Gentleness is the fundamental characteristic…cheerfulness pervades,” and he stressed that the work’s “emphasis” is “not on God or princes, but on the human being entering the church.”
It was Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, whose family had been longtime patrons of Franz Joseph Haydn, who commissioned the Mass to celebrate his wife’s name day. Between 1796 and 1802, Haydn composed six choral masses to mark the occasion. Following his retirement, the Prince approached other composers.
Beethoven, who had little experience setting liturgical texts, studied the works of Haydn, including the Creation. In a letter to Prince Esterházy, Beethoven wrote, “I shall hand you the Mass with considerable apprehension, since you, most excellent prince, are accustomed to have the inimitable masterpieces of the great Haydn performed for you.” The work’s under-rehearsed and apathetic premiere may have been Beethoven’s “most humiliating public failure.” (Charles Rosen) For the Esterházys, it was simply too radical and convention-defying. After the performance, the befuddled Prince said chidingly, “But, my dear Beethoven, what is this that you have done again?,” causing the court composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, to laugh. A few days later, Prince Esterházy wrote in a letter to a friend, “Beethoven’s Mass is unbearably ridiculous and detestable, and I am not convinced that it can ever be performed properly. I am angry and mortified.” Beethoven included excerpts from the Mass on a marathon December 22, 1808 concert in Vienna which included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Choral Fantasy. The dedication to Prince Esterházy was removed, and the published score was rededicated to one of the composer’s Vienna patrons, Prince Ferdinand Kinsky.
The first dramatic surprise of the Mass comes in the opening measure of the Kyrie. For a few beats, the choir’s unaccompanied basses are heard alone. Out of this foundational “C,” emerges a theme which suggests (in Beethoven’s words) “heartfelt resignation, whence comes a deep sincerity of religious feeling.” Amid the blank slate of C major, we hear what, in an 1813 review, E.T.A. Hoffmann described as “a childlike optimism that by its very purity devoutly trusts in God’s grace, and appeals to him as a father who desires the best for his children and hears their prayers.”
The Gloria erupts with joyful celebration. It is a thrilling musical conversation among the full chorus, the vocal soloists, and flowing lines in the strings. Following the somber middle section in F minor (Qui tollis peccata mundi), the movement comes to a climax filled with giddy euphoria. In the final moments, there is the strange emergence of a line from Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 (1805) in the strings.
The dynamic Credo unfolds in three sections, culminating in a joyful fugue. At moments, we hear the raw ferocity of the Fifth Symphony, which Beethoven was sketching during the same time period. In the final moments, the vocal lines are echoed cheerfully in the woodwinds. This “commentary” by the flutes, oboes, and bassoons, each with their distinct personas, moves us beyond the literal meaning of the text into a new dimension.
The tender and lamenting Sanctus moves to A major, and then to F major, before returning. The first section concludes with a military drumbeat in the timpani. The Sanctus and Benedictus are answered with the same bright fugue, “Osanna in excelsis!”
On a draft of the manuscript of the Agnus Dei, Beethoven wrote the words, “Utmost simplicity, please, please, please.” Throughout this final movement, we hear soulful interjections by the clarinet. The concluding Dona nobis pacem leaves us with the joy of simple pleasures. We are left with a combination of hushed exuberance and deep gratitude. In another groundbreaking move, in the final moments Beethoven brings us full circle with a restatement of the childlike Kyrie theme which opens the Mass.
This recording features John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir. The soloists are Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Catherine Robbin (mezzo-soprano), William Kendall (tenor), and Alastair Miles (bass):
Five Great Recordings
- Beethoven: Mass in C Major, Op. 86, John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Amazon
- Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90
- Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir
- Carlo Maria Giulini and the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
- Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Featured Image: “Beethoven’s Vision” (1880), Rudolf Hausleithner