Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86, is much less well known than his late sacred masterpiece the Missa Solemnis, and a common attitude sees it as practice or a “dry run” for the later work. But it is considerably more than that, as we shall see. Beethoven wrote it in 1807 at the behest of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II to honor his wife’s name day, and the composer approached the commission with some unease. To begin with, he had little experience setting sacred texts; the only religious work he had written thus far was the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and that piece is more operatic than liturgical. Moreover, Beethoven was competing in a field in which Haydn—Esterhazy’s former house composer and Beethoven’s former teacher—had shone with special skill. Listeners loved the good-natured serenity and simple faith exuded from the Masses of “Papa Haydn,” who once declared that “at the thought of God my heart leaps for joy and I cannot help my music doing the same.”
Beethoven’s temperament was altogether stormier, but that doesn’t mean that he was incapable of carrying on the tradition in his own way. In some respects, the Mass in C follows the conventions for a setting of the Mass Ordinary in the Classical era. There are five movements corresponding to the five parts of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. However, Beethoven does not further subdivide these movements into arias and other numbers (as Bach does in his Great B-minor Mass, for example). If Bach’s and Mozart’s Masses are structured somewhat like operas, the structure of Beethoven’s Mass is powerfully symphonic. He casts the Mass in five monumental blocks, like the movements of a symphony. Each movement or part of the Mass has a distinctive expressive affect, as it certainly had long before Beethoven:
Kyrie: pleading, repentant
Gloria: joyous, delight
Credo: affirmative, confident, narrative
Sanctus: majestic; Benedictus: tender, intimate
Agnus Dei: grave, solemn, pleading; Dona nobis pacem: newfound peace
Another feature of this early Mass that Beethoven would use again is the four vocal soloists standing out from the choir; they are most often treated as a unified quartet and thus are integrated into the musical texture. Their music is exquisitely interwoven, with a beautiful lyricism. Beethoven uses them for two passages of the Mass that have special weight: Qui tollis peccata mundi of the Gloria and Et incarnatus est of the Credo—the most sacred passage of the Creed, where believers bow their heads, and which composers have usually set apart for special musical treatment. Beethoven certainly delivers in these highly expressive musical paragraphs. Our attention is arrested by the words sub Pontio Pilato set to a descending chromatic line—the very sound of human failure!
In addition to being smaller in scale than the Missa solemnis, the Mass in C is quite different in its expressive affect, belying the notion that it is merely a “practice work” or, much less, a perfunctory fulfillment of a commission. Beethoven’s response to the text of the Mass is personal and original. As he himself stated, “I think that I have treated the text in a manner in which it has rarely been treated.” This is in contrast to Mass-writing in the earlier generation, which did become something of a routine affair at times, as composers turned out Masses to formula much as a tailor makes suits. Perhaps not being part of the liturgical music “establishment” gave Beethoven a fresh perspective on his task.
From the start of the Kyrie we hear music of a humble simplicity which the critic and aesthetician E.T.A. Hoffmann, writing about the work upon its publication in 1813, called “a childlike optimism that be 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 simple optimism is inherent in the very key of C major, which has no sharps and flats and was often associated by music theorists with “communal joy and celebration.”
Yet while the Mass in C has a childlike faith and radiance, there are more characteristically Beethovenian touches as well. One occurs at the start of the Credo, which starts piano and crescendos rapidly to forte with a fourfold repetition of the word “Credo”: “Credo, credo, credo, CREDO!” Composers often use text repetition for emphasis, but this is a striking instance that gives one pause. One commentator sees this passage as dramatizing the “leap of faith”; Beethoven, as it were, must arrive at faith through struggle. Compare this to Bach’s setting in the B-minor Mass, where the phrase Credo in unum Deum is stalwartly declaimed in a chorale-chant melody.
The personal touches continue in the Agnus Dei, a text in which the affect naturally divides itself into “dark” and “light” halves: Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—Grant us peace. Haydn’s setting of the Agnus Dei in his Mass in Time of War had a similar foreboding quality to Beethoven’s, followed by the sun breaking out of the clouds at Dona nobis pacem. Indeed, the tendency toward more symphonic, dramatic conceptions of the Mass is marked in the era leading up to Beethoven. The drumroll Haydn put in his Agnus Dei, for example, lent a sense of distant foreboding often thought to reflect the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in Vienna.
But Beethoven does a surprising and touching thing at the very end of his Dona nobis pacem: he brings back the radiantly trusting music from the opening Kyrie eleison, thus rounding out the entire Mass and implying that the prayer has been answered.
For the rest, Beethoven develops the music of Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini into a section of unusual breadth and depth with the quartet of soloists pitted against the choir and orchestra. And listen to the dramatic escalating harmonies toward the end of the Gloria which are pure Beethoven, and far removed from Haydn. Beethoven also travels further afield in his keys than many earlier composers might have done. The Mass begins and ends in C major, but in between he touches on a number of tonalities: E major, F minor, A-flat, E flat, A, and F; not to mention the C minor of the opening of the Agnus Dei. Thus, while anchoring himself in the Haydn-Mozart style of Mass, Beethoven has gone beyond it. He adds to their grace a muscular strength that to this listener suggests divine energy and creativity—a quality wholly Beethovenian.
At the time Beethoven composed his Mass in C sacred music had lost some of its luster, a decline occasioned by the secularism of the French Revolution. Some French composers who had previously written Catholic Masses even gone so far as to write musical accompaniments to ceremonies of the Cult of Reason. But with the religious revival promoted by Napoleon, genuine sacred music had a resurgence. Moreover, sacred and secular music were reaching a rapprochement. The Mass became a vehicle for dramatic and emotional expression, in contrast to the serene detachment sought by Palestrina and other masters of the Renaissance. To some degree, Beethoven’s early Mass harmonizes these two moods, the serene and the emotional. During this period, thinkers like E.T.A. Hoffmann were theorizing about a new model for sacred music, a way for it to move forward after the ruinous secularization of the Revolution. Hoffmann recommended looking back to the glories of classic sacred music, especially Palestrina—for inspiration, not slavish imitation. Although Hoffmann curiously did not give full approval to Beethoven’s C-major Mass, to us it seems to exemplify the authentic, sincere form of religious expression he and other theorists seeking. Unlike many of the old rococo Masses, there is no “superficial levity” here, no “ostentatious display.” The fugues are filled with joy and never mere technical exercises. Beethoven combines the serene dignity of the old with the new heightened drama and orchestral and harmonic resources of the early 1800s. The result is a humanism in religious-artistic expression in keeping with the new Romantic spirit.
This Mass was certainly a test piece for Beethoven, extending his composing experience into the sacred sphere where he would rise to glorious heights in the Missa Solemnis. But it is also a gem in its own right. As we enjoy Beethoven’s late masterwork in his anniversary year, let us not forget its lovely and worthy forerunner, the Mass in C.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 2, 2020.
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