Beethoven’s Mass in C


Ludwig van Beethoven (b.Bonn1770; d.Vienna1827) composed his great masterpiece, the Mass in C, in 1807 on a commission from Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy (r.1794-1833).  The commission was intended to revive a tradition established by Joseph Haydn to compose one Mass per year to celebrate the name day, September 12, the Most Holy Name of Mary, of the Prince’s wife, Princess Maria Hermengild Esterházy.  With the failure of Haydn’s health in 1802 the tradition ceased.  Beethoven was fully aware of the tradition that Haydn had established and it influenced him strongly in composing his own Mass.  Beethoven’s Mass in C premiered on September 13, 1807 in Eisenstadt, the ancestral seat of the Esterházys, which is about 40 km south of Vienna.  While Beethoven seems to have been quite pleased with the work, his first effort in the genre, Prince Nikolaus was not pleased – describing it as “unbearably ridiculous and detestable”. Beethoven was undeterred however, and the Mass received a more positive response resulting in its publication after an 1812 presentation in the city of Troppau, which at that time was part of Austrian Silesia and is now Opava in the Czech Republic, some 180 km northeast of Vienna.  Of note in this Mass are the unaccompanied bass voices in the opening of the Kyrie, the unison or octave singing in the profound passages of the Gloria and Credo, the use of expanded highly developed contrapuntal codas (such as those used in Beethoven’s later symphonies) at the end of those movements, and a passage in the Benedictus scored for voices and tympani only.  In the Agnus Dei Beethoven allows the “anguish” of the C minor key in the Miserere nobis to give way to the “relief” of the C major key in the Dona nobis pacem – a technique that he used later in his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor “Fate”, Op 67 (1808).  The Mass in C was composed while Beethoven was beginning to suffer major hearing loss that would eventually lead to total deafness in the decade to follow.  Beethoven battled against physical adversity for much of his adult life and it is a measure of his genius that his life’s work transcended this so magnificently.  Nearly 200 years after his death, he is still one of the pre-eminent composers in the classical genre and his Mass in C amply illustrates that genius. The Chorale particularly enjoys this work because of the demands placed on every individual – choir, soloists, orchestra, and conductor.  (44:00)

(Adapted from a note by John Palmer in the “All Music Guide to Classical Music”, published in 2005 by Backbeat Books)

Beethoven’s Mass in C is conducted by the Chorale & Orchestra music director Dr. Marc Jaros. Mary E. LeVoir is the organist. Soloists are Patricia Kent, soprano; Jocelyn Kalajian, contralto; John deCausmeaker, tenor; and Jon Nordstrom, bass. The Schola Cantorum is directed by Paul W. LeVoir. The Mass in C was in the repertory of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale & Orchestra prior to its residency at the Church of Saint Agnes in 1974. The Chorale and Orchestra last presented this Mass on October 29, 2017. The Mass in C was recorded by the Chorale in 1986 and is available for purchase from the Leaflet Missal Co. at

Recommended Listening:

Beethoven at St. Agnes / Schuler: Twin Cities Catholic Chorale & Orchestra / 1986 / Leaflet Missal
Beethoven: Missa Op. 86 / Rilling: Stuttgart Bach Collegium / 2000 / Haenssler
The Beethoven Journey: Choral Fantasy; Piano Concerto No. 5 / Andsnes: Mahler Chamber Orchestra / 2014 / Sony
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5 / Vänskä: Minnesota Orchestra  / 2004 / BIS SACD-1416

An all Beethoven benefit concert for various local charities was presented on Thursday, December 22, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.  It consisted entirely of Beethoven works and was directed from the conductor’s podium by Beethoven himself. The “musical Akademie” (concert) “doubleheader” commenced at 6:30pm and lasted for more than four hours. The two symphonies appeared on the program in reverse order; the Sixth was played first, and the Fifth appeared in the second half. Also included were “movements” from the Mass in C as well as the entire Choral Fantasy. The Choral Fantasy served as the concluding work, bringing together pianist, soloists, chorus, and orchestra. The movements from the Mass in C were not advertised in the program as such, due to restrictions on performing church music in theatres. The works presented at the Akademie appear below in the order performed:
Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral”, Op 68 (1808)*
Aria for Soprano & Orchestra “Ah perfido” Op 65 (1796)
Mass in C Major, Op 86: II-IV. Gloria (1807)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op 58 (1805-06) (performed by the composer)*
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor “Fate”, Op 67 (1804-08)*
Mass in C Major, Op 86: X-XII. Sanctus; XIII-XIV Benedictus (1807)
Fantasia for Piano (improvisation performed by the composer)**
Choral Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, Soloists, Chorus, & Orchestra, Op 80 (1808)*
* Premier
** Scored and published in 1809 as Fantasia in g, Op 77 




Interested in receiving our newsletter or learning more about the Chorale? Drop us a line!

Church of St. Agnes