Beethoven’s Mass in C
Sadly, Beethoven’s first signs of deafness appeared at age 28. As hope of recovery dwindled, he began to extricate himself from social life. Finally, in 1802, he wrote to his brothers, “How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others. . .,” words that marked his withdrawal to a solitary life. His letter continues, “O it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that was in me. So I reprieved this utterly wretched life.” Passionate love for an ultimately unavailable countess and rigorous work followed as he challenged fate in a fruitful period of masterpieces, including the Mass in C Major.
Ludwig van Beethoven composed the Mass in C major, Op. 86, to a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II in 1807. The mass, scored for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, was premiered that year by the Prince’s musical forces in Eisenstadt. Beethoven performed parts of it in his 1808 concert featuring the premieres of four major works including his Fifth Symphony. The mass was published in 1812 by Breitkopf & Härtel. While the Prince who commissioned the mass was not pleased, the contemporary critic E. T. A. Hoffmann appreciated the “expression of a childlike serene mind”, and Michael Moore notes the music’s “directness and an emotional content”.
Beethoven’s first mass was not initially appreciated for its ground-breaking approach. As a radical departure from sonata-based structure, except in the leisurely ‘Benedictus,” the Mass is simpler and humbler than the grander Viennese model of the time. Setting dogmatism aside, it strives for “contemplation of the divine from a condition of inner peace” in the restrained ‘Kyrie,’ subdued ‘Sedet ad dexteram Patris,’ delicate ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ and earnest ‘Agnus Dei’ (Michelle Fallion in Beethoven Forum 7, 1999). But to 19th-century audiences, the transition from anguished ‘misereres’ to the brief, innocent ‘dona nobis pacem’ without repeating ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,’ only to explode again in ‘misereres’ was a disorienting approach. Yet those ‘misereres’ with the “offbeat accents, syncopations, and diminished-seventh harmonies” (Fallion) lead powerfully to the radiant ‘dona nobis.’ The C-major to C-minor transitions and plainchant-like choral passages of the Mass, like those of the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria,’ are among the most thrilling settings in the history of the mass. “The general character of the ‘Kyrie’. . . is heartfelt resignation, whence comes a deep sincerity of religious feeling,” said Beethoven, who knew he had something and prevailed in publishing this Mass several years later.
Hear the acclaimed RMP Choir and award-winning conductor Andrew Wailes perform this great choral work, accompanied by the specially formed 3MBS Beethoven Symphony Orchestra and four outstanding Australian soloists.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Mass in C Op.86
Andrew Wailes (Conductor)
Zara Barrett (soprano)
Shakira Dugan (mezzo soprano)
Henry Choo (tenor)
Nicholas Dinopoulos (bass baritone)
Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir
3MBS Beethoven Symphony Orchestra
Sunday 23 February 2020 9.45am
Duration: 1 hour (no interval)