Mass in C

(Beethoven, Op.86, 1807)

Beethoven's first mass setting was commissioned by Prince Esterhazy who found the work unbearably ridiculous and detestable after the first performance on 13th September 1807. Beethoven himself was, however, proud of his achievement. The occasion was the name day of the Prince's wife for which Haydn had written six Masses and Hummel three. The master of instrumental forms was faced with the problem of word-setting and additional requirements of the liturgy. He treated the text in a rare manner, which provoked Prince Esterhazy's reaction 'What is this you have done again, Beethoven?' This work belongs to Beethoven's heroic period and has the deeply expressive style of that period. Despite the early opinions on the contrary, with Beethoven's Mass in C, Viennese Mass reached its culmination, his Mass in D was to be universal in scope.

Beethoven uses an orchestra with double woodwind but without the expected trombones similar to the Fourth Symphony written a year before. Trombones were probably omitted because this Mass was intended for performance in Eisenstadt where the orchestra lacked the trombones. The Kyrie omits flutes, trumpets and timpani. The independence of the orchestral bass is also noteworthy. While in Haydn's Masses, the orchestra is the main protagonist, in Mass in C, the function of the orchestra is to decorate and underline the vocal message. This Mass stresses the voices to the detriment of the orchestra. The orchestral writing is constantly varied and expressive. In this Mass, he did not split up the work into the traditional orchestral sections, arias, solo ensembles and choruses. Instead, all these forces are employed equally throughout the work. The dramatic touches and dynamic extremes that would be so important in the later Missa Solemnis are restrained in the Mass in C. Unlike other Beethoven works, this one does not pose difficulties of tessitura.

The Mass has the conventional five movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Osanna-Benedictus (Osanna repeated) and Agnus Dei-Dona nobis pacem (the pleading music of Kyrie eleson is repeated at the end as a coda). Thematic relationships and the overall tonal plan are the unifying agents. Beethoven's fondness for the use of mediant (E major) and submediant (A major) keys are obvious in this work. In the first three movements, C major is the point of departure and arrival. The Sanctus and Osanna are in A major, while the Benedictus in between is in F major. The Agnus Dei is in C minor and reverts to C major in Donna nobis. The simplicity of the material and the economy of its use in the Kyrie is striking. Still, music has continuity and a sense of purpose. It moves beyond the rigid frame of contemporary Masses (by Cherubini, Schubert). In small units, the rhythm is square-cut but if phrased broadly, it displays much flexibility. The musical ideas must be read in complete sentences not word by word. Rapid piling-up of sonority by close successive entries, especially in the Quoniam is noteworthy. Many features of this Mass is forward-looking. There is great freedom in the fugal sections. The vigorous fugal writing of 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' is surrounded by the majestic homophony of 'Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus' in the Gloria. Also unconventional is the fugal treatment of 'Et Vitam Venturi' where the choral tutti is reserved until after the exposition is completed and sealed off by the orchestra. Maybe the only conservatively designed section is the Osanna passages.  

The choral basses quietly start the piece without an orchestral preamble as in some of Haydn's Masses. Gentle modulations prevent the blandness of largely diatonic phrases. The tripartite symbolism of the Trinity is reflected in the three-part text, three distinct musical sections and by placing the central Christie in a key a third higher. Beethoven's detailed tempo marking, Andante con moto assai vivace quasi allegretto ma non troppo, shows his concern that the movement not be taken too slowly. The interplay between solo voices and chorus provides constantly varying textures throughout the Mass. The drama in the largely homophonic (block chords) Gloria is created by pitch, key and dynamic changes. The broad diatonic harmonies and the stability of the choral writing in the Gloria give an impression of the unchanging eternal strength of God. The outer, laudatory sections are exuberant Allegros, with the prayers of the central section 'Qui tollis' set as an Andante mosso for soloists echoed by the choir. The modulation to F minor (turning to Ab major) for the 'Qui tollis' reminds of Florestan's despair and Egmont's sufferings. At the words 'Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris' (You who sit at the Father's right hand) in the Gloria, he reduces the voices from four-part harmony to octaves for the first time to depict the oneness of Christ with God. Also in the rest of the work, octaves and unison are often employed in connection with the idea of God as the one, as at the words 'Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus' (For only you are holy) at the end of the Gloris, and later in the Credo at 'Deum verum de Deo vero' (true God from true God). The Credo is written in three-parts. The solo quartet is reserved until the middle section. Beethoven follows an old custom by giving the words 'et homo factus est' (and was made man) to the tenor. The resurrection and ascension are announced with suitable rising motives, and the movement concludes with a fugue on 'et vitam venturi.' the solemnity of the short Sanctus is underscored by the addition of timpani, and a traditionally fugal Osanna follows. Soloists begin the Benedictus without an instrumental interlude (the Missa has a long one) in respect to Eisenstadt custom. The Agnus Dei follows the concluding Osanna without a pause. At the end, the 'Dona nobis pacem' is prolonged by recalling the music of the opening Kyrie fourteen bars before the end with the instruction tempo del Kyrie. It returns to the major key and switches from triple to duple metre.

A brief note for conductors: It has been commented that this deceptively easy Mass holds many traps for the inexperienced conductor. It is recommended to practice the conducting of fp, to study the score and its surprises (A.Kaplan: Choral Conducting. WW Norton, 1985).

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M.Tevfik Dorak B.A. (Hons)