Ludwig van Beethoven | Choral Fantasy and Mass in C Major

“Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life. . . the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.”

— Beethoven

The church organist for whom Beethoven served as assistant said of the unkempt and undernourished 11-year-old, “This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel.  He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. . .”  Five years later, at 16, Beethoven left Bonn and his sordid childhood home for Vienna.  Shortly after his arrival, he played for Mozart, who said to his friends, “Keep your eyes on him.  Someday he will give the world something to talk about.”  Beethoven was called away almost immediately by his mother’s death.  As the eldest, he had to return home to care for his drunken father and three siblings.  Fortunately, an enlightened aristocratic Bonn family befriended him.  In their circle he was introduced to music’s overlord, Joseph Haydn, who promised him lessons in Vienna.  The church elector financed 22-year-old Beethoven’s second departure for Vienna, two days before France invaded Bonn.  Once in Vienna, the dark-eyed, dark-complexioned young man, in an unprecedented stance, insisted on maintaining his independence from the patronage system.  He began his career by composing cheerful sonatas and attracting students and admirers from the best circles.

Sadly, Beethoven’s first signs of deafness appeared at age 28.  As hope of recovery dwindled, he began to extricate himself from social life.  Finally, in 1802, he wrote to his brothers, “How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others. . .,” words that marked his withdrawal to a solitary life.  His letter continues, “O it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that was in me.  So I reprieved this utterly wretched life.”  Passionate love for an ultimately unavailable countess and rigorous work followed as he challenged fate in a fruitful period of masterpieces, including the Mass in C Major.

Beethoven regarded himself as an artist, remaining unfettered by political or religious mandates.  He found his spiritual and creative inspiration in nature, spending months each summer in the countryside away from city life.  He walked for hours daily in the woods, folded music paper in hand on which he noted sketches for the “inexhaustible fund of art” he left to us (New Grove:  Beethoven, 1983).

On a long open carriage ride home in bitter cold in 1826, after unsuccessfully petitioning his prosperous brother to help his delinquent nephew Karl, Beethoven arrived home with a high fever that led to his death several weeks later.  Among the 20,000 mourners at his funeral, an old woman answered a query with “Don’t you know?  They’re burying the general of the musicians.”  Deeply inspired by the French and American revolutions, Beethoven’s inner revolution had created a body of work that shattered the mold of classical music.  The then 17-year-old Chopin, 16-year-old Lizst, 18-year-old Mendelssohn, 17-year-old Schumann, and 17-year-old Wagner were to become the next “pupils” of the bright-burning tiger who had heightened the emotional intensity of music and brought it closer to human experience.

Choral Fantasy

The year 1808 was one of Beethoven’s most productive, as evidenced by the Vienna concert on December 23, 1808, at which the Fantasy was first performed.  The concert included the first performance of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, an aria, part of the Mass in C Major and a solo fantasia improvised by Beethoven.  The Choral Fantasy ended the concert, with Beethoven at the piano.  The work is a testament to Beethoven’s power as both composer and virtuoso pianist.

The Fantasy is probably best known as a precursor to the last movement of the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1823), but it is no less interesting for that.  The work builds, through a series of variations, to a rousing chorus – in this work, praising the power of music.  The text is by Christopher Kuffner, court secretary and violinist and a friend of Beethoven’s.

Here is a road map for those who find such things helpful:

Adagio, C minor:  Introduction for piano solo.  This may have been improvised in the first performance, or at least it was not written down until later.

Allegro:  Introductory dialogue with orchestra.

Meno allegro, C major:  Statement of the theme by the piano, with a group of variations and coda.  Beethoven had earlier used the theme in his song Gegenliebe (1795).  With its stepwise motion and simple tonic-dominant harmony, its kinship with the “Ode to Joy” of the Ninth Symphony is striking.

Molto allegro, C minor:  Variation followed by development.

Adagio, A major:  Slow variations with coda.

 Alla marcia, assai vivace, F major:  Variation followed by development.

Allegro, C minor:  Resumption of introductory dialogue.

Allegretto moderatoquasi Andante con moto, C major:  A few introductory measures lead into the vocal statement of the theme, first by the soloists, then taken up by the whole chorus.

Presto, C major:  Coda.

Mass in C Major

Beethoven’s first mass was not initially appreciated for its ground-breaking approach.  As a radical departure from sonata-based structure, except in the leisurely ‘Benedictus,” the Mass is simpler and humbler than the grander Viennese model of the time.  Setting dogmatism aside, it strives for “contemplation of the divine from a condition of inner peace” in the restrained ‘Kyrie,’ subdued ‘Sedet ad dexteram Patris,’ delicate ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ and earnest ‘Agnus Dei’ (Michelle Fallion in Beethoven Forum 7, 1999).  But to 19th-century audiences, the transition from anguished ‘misereres’ to the brief, innocent ‘dona nobis pacem’ without repeating ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,’ only to explode again in ‘misereres’ was a disorienting approach.  Yet those ‘misereres’ with the “offbeat accents, syncopations, and diminished-seventh harmonies” (Fallion) lead powerfully to the radiant ‘dona nobis.’  The C-major to C-minor transitions and plainchant-like choral passages of the Mass, like those of the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria,’ are among the most thrilling settings in the history of the mass.  “The general character of the ‘Kyrie’. . . is heartfelt resignation, whence comes a deep sincerity of religious feeling,” said Beethoven, who knew he had something and prevailed in publishing this Mass several years later.

— by Carol Talbeck and Ian Crane