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Beethoven's Mass in C Major - from underappreciated "failure" to splendid Masterwork

Ludwig van Beethoven composed the Mass in C major, Op. 86, to a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, Franz Joseph Haydn's benefactor, in 1807. The mass, composed for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, was premiered the same year by the Prince's musical forces in Eisenstadt (with Beethoven himself conducting). Beethoven performed parts of it in his 1808 concert featuring the premieres of four major works, including his Fifth Symphony. The mass was published in 1812 by Breitkopf & Härtel.

The composition is scored for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), a four-part choir (SATB), and a symphony orchestra of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings and organ. The setting of the Latin Order of Mass is structured in five movements.

Beethoven was fully aware of the tradition that Haydn had established, and it influenced him strongly in writing the Mass in C major. Beethoven confessed in a letter to the prince: "May I just say that I will hand the mass over to you with great trepidation, as Your Serene Highness is accustomed to having the inimitable masterworks of the great Haydn performed."

The premiere was not well received, particularly by the man who commissioned it, Prince Esterházy, who thought it too "modern". Beethoven's 19th century biographers Anton Schindler and Alexander Wheelock Thayer describe the scene:

According to the story, the prince, after hearing the work—and probably noticing its stark difference from the styles of Mass composition he revered in Haydn—said to Beethoven, "But, my dear Beethoven, what is that you have done again?" Whereupon, continues the story, the court chapel master was heard to laugh—this being none other than Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the composer and pianist who had himself written masses for the Esterházy court, including one in the same key, C major, just the previous year. Reacting angrily to the prince's question and furious over Hummel's pompous laughter as well as the inferior guest quarters he had been given in Eisenstadt, Beethoven left in a huff.

The prince had perhaps muted his reactions in directly addressing Beethoven, as in a later letter to the Countess Henriette von Zielinska he went so far as to say, "Beethoven's mass is unbearably ridiculous and detestable, and I am not convinced that it can ever be performed properly. I am angry and mortified."

Today, the mass is appreciated by critics, but it is probably one of the least performed of Beethoven's larger works. Musicologist Michael Moore has written, "While [it] is often overshadowed by the immense Missa Solemnis, written some fifteen years later, it has a directness and an emotional content that the latter work sometimes lacks." The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs (2004 edition) calls the work a "long-underrated masterpiece."