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beethoven’s 250th birthday celebration

beethoven’s 250th birthday celebration


Mass in C major, Op. 86 (1807)

Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, scion of one of the highest-ranking families in the Habsburg Empire, assuaged his unquenchable desire for music by supporting one of the leading European musical establishments of the late 18th century. The next Prince, however, Anton, Nicolaus’ son, did not inherit his family’s musical tastes along with his title upon his father’s death in 1790, and he dismissed all the household musicians except for a brass band for military functions. Joseph Haydn, who had supervised the music at the Esterházy palaces for almost three decades, was granted a generous pension, and he soon dashed off to London for the first of two triumphant residencies. When he returned to Austria in 1795 from his second London venture, Haydn learned that the leadership of the Esterházy family had changed yet again, having passed to Nicolaus II during his absence, and that the new Prince had revived the musical organization which had so magnificently adorned the family’s functions in earlier years. As his contribution to the renewed court musical life, Haydn was asked to write a new Mass each year for the mid-September celebration at the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt of the name-day of Nicolaus’ wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild. (Well-born Catholic children at that time were given the name of a saint being commemorated on the day of their birth. Mozart’s baptismal names, for example, begin with Johann Chrysostom because he was born on January 27th, the feast of St. John Chrysostom. Hermenegild was an obscure 6th-century saint.) Haydn composed six Masses for the Princess’ birthdays between 1796 and 1802; they are among his most magnificent creations. Johann Nepomuk Hummel was engaged as the Esterházy music director in 1804, and he wrote the Masses for the next three years. In 1807, the commission for the annual Mass went to Ludwig van Beethoven, who had maintained a respectful if somewhat cool relationship with Haydn after studying with him briefly upon settling in Vienna in 1792.

Beethoven was at first hesitant to accept the Esterházy commission, perhaps intimidated by Haydn’s earlier compositions for the occasion, but by the spring of 1807, he had agreed to the proposal and was at work on the piece. Progress on the Mass was slowed early in the summer by headaches and digestive distress (his physician diagnosed gout and recommended the sensible regimen of “taking the baths, working little and sleeping, eating well, and drinking spirits in moderation”), but the work was completed by late August and the premiere date set for September 13th. Beethoven arrived expectantly in Eisenstadt in time for the final preparations, but he sensed bad omens for the upcoming performance when he was installed in damp, uncomfortable quarters away from the castle and when most of the alto section of the chorus skipped the dress rehearsal. Things, not surprisingly, went poorly, at least according to the event’s patron. “A German pigsty,” Prince Nicolaus is reported to have grumbled about the Bonn-born Beethoven’s latest creation. “My dear Beethoven,” he inquired at the post-concert reception, “what have you done now?” (Kapellmeister Hummel laughed out loud at his employer’s barbed witticism, and he and Beethoven were on icy terms for years thereafter.) And to the Countess Henriette von Zielinska, the Prince wrote, “Beethoven’s Mass in unbearably ridiculous and detestable, and I am not convinced that it can ever be performed properly. I am angry and mortified.” (Such responses drove Beethoven to dedicate the score upon its publication in 1812 not to Nicolaus but to his dependable patron Prince Ferdinand Kinsky.) Despite such noble invective, Beethoven thought highly of his Mass in C major, his first setting of texts from his paternal but not-closely-followed Catholicism, saying that he “held it very closely to my heart,” and programming the Gloria and Sanctus on his overwhelming Vienna concert of December 22, 1808, which also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. It was not until Prince Karl Lichnowsky sponsored a complete and satisfactory performance of the work in 1811 that the Mass in C major came to be regarded among Beethoven’s most substantial and characteristic vocal compositions.

Given the musical precedents and the well-established traditions of the name-day observances at Eisenstadt, Beethoven had little choice but to follow the model of Haydn’s late Masses in his own work: in scale (which the Missa Solemnis of 1818-1823 would dwarf), in instrumentation (most notably the omission of trombones, which would have been expected in Vienna but were eschewed in Eisenstadt), in the symphonic integration of voices and orchestra, in favoring the vocal ensemble over solo arias, and in balancing the chorus against the soloists. Beethoven warmed these techniques, largely inherited from Haydn, with the simmering Romantic sensibility from which sprang the work’s immediate chronological companions — the Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6; the Piano Sonatas, Op. 53, 54 and 57; the Fourth Piano Concerto; the Violin Concerto; the first two versions of Fidelio; the Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59; the Coriolan Overture; and the Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69. Though overshadowed among his choral compositions by the towering Missa Solemnis, the Mass in C major is, wrote J. Merrill Knapp in his study of the score, “mature, percipient Beethoven, bringing to bear on one of Christianity’s most familiar texts the full force of his personality and creative genius. It is spiritually religious and not dogmatic or routine. It breathes a spirit of prayer and mystical being that comes from the inner Beethoven. Whereas it really belongs in a church for a celebration of the Mass, it also reaches outside to humanity at large.”


Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.
Christe eleison. Christ, have mercy.
Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.


Gloria in excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the highest,
et in terra pax hominibus and on earth peace to men
bonae voluntatis. of good will.
Laudamus te, benedicimus te, We praise you, we bless you,
adoramus te, glorificamus te. we worship you, we glorify you.
Gratias agimus tibi propter We give you thanks
magnam gloriam tuam. for your great glory.
Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, Lord God, heavenly King,
Deus pater omnipotens. God the Father almighty.
Domine Fili unigenite The only-begotten Son,
Jesu Christe, Lord Jesus Christ,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Lord God, Lamb of God,
Filius Patris, Son of the Father,
qui tollis peccata mundi: you take away the sin of the world:
miserere nobis; have mercy on us;
qui tollis peccata mundi: you take away the sin of the world:
suscipe deprecationem nostram; receive our prayer;
qui sedes ad dexteram Patris: you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
miserere nobis. have mercy on us.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus, For you alone are the Holy One,
tu solus Dominus, you alone are the Lord,
tu solus altissimus, you alone are the Most High,
Jesu Christe, Jesus Christ,
cum sancto spiritu, with the Holy Spirit,
in gloria Dei Patris. Amen. in the glory of God the Father. Amen.


Credo in unum Deum, We believe in one God,
Patrem omnipotentem, the Father, the Almighty,
factorem coeli et terrae, maker of heaven and earth,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium. of all that is, seen and unseen.
Credo in unum Dominum, We believe in one Lord,
Jesum Christum, Jesus Christ,
Filium Dei unigenitum, the only Son of God,
et ex patre natum eternally begotten
ante omnia saecula. of the Father.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, God from God, Light from Light,
Deum verum de Deo vero. true God from true God,
Genitum, non factum, begotten, not made,
consubstantialem Patri, of one Being with the Father.
Per quem omnia facta sunt. Through him all things were made.
Qui propter nos homines et For us men and
propter nostram salutem for our salvation
descendit de coelis: he came down from heaven:
et incarnatus est de Spiritu by the power of the Holy Spirit
Sancto ex Maria virgine, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
et homo factus est. and was made man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, For our sake he was crucified
sub Pontio Pilato passus, under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death
et sepultus est. and was buried.
Et resurrexit tertia die On the third day he rose again
secundum scripturas; in accordance with the Scriptures;
et ascendit in coelum sedet and ascended into heaven and is seated
ad dexteram Patris. at the right hand of the Father.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria He will come again in glory
judicare vivos et mortuos, to judge the living and the dead,
cujus regni non erit finis. and his kingdom will have no end.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, We believe in the Holy Spirit,
Dominum et vivificantem, the Lord, the giver of life,
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit. who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul With the Father and the Son
adoratur et conglorificatur. he is worshipped and glorified.
Qui locutus est per Prophetas. He has spoken through the Prophets.
Credo in unum sanctam catholicam et We believe in one holy catholic and
apostolicam ecclesiam. apostolic Church.
Confiteor unum baptisma in We acknowledge one baptism for the
remissionem peccatorum. forgiveness of sins.
Et expecto resurrectionem We look for the resurrection of the
mortuorum, et vitam dead, and the life
venturi seculi. Amen. of the world to come. Amen.


Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus, Holy, holy, holy Lord,
Deus Sabaoth, God of power and might,
pleni sunt coeli et terra heaven and earth are full
gloria tuae. of your glory.
Osanna in excelsis. Hosanna in the highest.
Benedictus qui venit Blessed is he who comes
in nomine Domini. in the name of the Lord.
Osanna in excelsis. Hosanna in the highest.


Agnus Dei, Lamb of God,
qui tollis peccata mundi: you take away the sins of the world:
miserere nobis. have mercy on us.
Agnus Dei, Lamb of God,
qui tollis peccata mundi: you take away the sins of the world:
miserere nobis. have mercy on us.
Agnus Dei, Lamb of God,
qui tollis peccata mundi: you take away the sins of the world:
dona nobis pacem. grant us peace.
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