Mass in C major

“I am none too enthusiastic to talk about my Mass, or generally, about myself, but I think that I treated the text as few have ever done” – wrote Beethoven in a letter dated June 8th 1808, to his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. Beethoven is here self-conscious but not exaggerating in the slightest: by composing the five traditional mass movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) as five large units, the composer sets out on a new path in this genre, deviating from the earlier practice of dividing individual movements into shorter or longer internal sections. The motific relations between individual themes, as well as the strict tonal scheme, is effectively “symphonic.” The initial motifs themselves are also very much vocally inspired – in agreement with a  later Beethoven pronouncement, that “with the exception of the Gloria and one or two similar sections, generally it is only permitted to sing true church music.” Otherwise, the C major mass owes much to Haydn’s late masses, and this is not just the humility of a former pupil: the mass was commissioned by Miklós Esterházy himself (which is why the nickname Eisenstadt is sometimes applied to this mass), for whom Haydn wrote his final six essays in the genre. Such small, courtly gestures – by contrast with the radically innovative concept for the mass – proved insufficient for winning the sympathy of the Prince, who allegedly turned to Beethoven after the premiere, asking: “Aber lieber Beethoven, was haben Sie denn da wieder gemacht?” “But dear Beethoven, what have you gone and done this time??”