Beethoven Mass in C Major, op. 86 Program Notes

A Feast of Sacred Music

Welcome to our first collaboration with the Sunnyside Symphony Orchestra. We are delighted at this opportunity to join together to present Beethoven’s inspiring Mass in C Major.  In addition, the chorus and orchestra will each perform works on our own, with music inspired by ancient texts and different religious traditions, written by composers from three centuries and several different countries.

One of the first prayers Catholics learn is the Hail, Mary—in Latin, Ave Maria. The prayer includes two verses from the Gospel of Luke: the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation, and her kinswoman Elizabeth’s greeting during Mary’s visit. The last section, beginning with “Sancta Maria,” does not appear in the Bible but was added less than 500 years ago. Catholics also recite the prayer as part of the Rosary and of a devotion called the Angelus.

Our first setting, by German composer and choir director Franz Biebl (1906-2001), includes part of the Angelus prayer with the words that precede Gabriel’s greeting, sung almost as plainchant. The music then shifts into more modern harmonies, with lines that rise gradually and then soar. Ironically, this setting first became popular in America as an indirect consequence of war. In 1943, Biebl was drafted into the German army, but he was soon detained as a prisoner in Michigan. After the war, he directed a town choir in Bavaria and composed this work for them. When he later became head of Bavarian radio, he started inviting American choirs to come sing on programs along with German groups, and one of those American choirs brought his setting home. His music helped heal a conflict between nations.

The second setting also emerged out of political strife. The Orthodox Church reveres the Virgin Mary, but the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent Soviet policies actively repressed religious expression and religious music. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, sacred music revived in Russia, Ukraine, and other parts of the former USSR. The treble voices present a work by Ukrainian composer Efrem Podgaits (b. 1949). His ravishing Ave Maria is especially striking because it is in Latin, not Slavonic, as well as for its double choirs. The Moscow-trained Podgaits has written symphonies, concertos, operas, and chamber music, as well as for films and the stage, plus many works especially for children. His Ave Maria (2004) combines aspects of Russian liturgical music with complex, unexpected harmonies and rhythmic patterns. The eight lines of treble voices chime one after the other like distant bells.

We close our first set with the exuberant “Plaudite, Psallite” (2023) by Lithuanian American composer and choral director Kęstutis Daugirdas (1985), who has written everything from film scores, video games, and television commercials to numerous choral compositions. An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, he divides his time between his native Chicago and Lithuania. This piece, dedicated to Darius Polikaitis, the director of his first children’s choir, uses a text Daugirdas has long enjoyed. First set by Venetian master Giovanni Gabrieli in 1597, the words come from several psalms, combined into a hymn of joyful praise. Daugirdas will premiere two new choral pieces at the UNESCO-sponsored Lithuanian Song Festival, with a choir of 10,000 voices, in Vilnius this summer.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan

The Russian Easter Festival Overture, written between 1887 and 1888, is the last of a great trio of orchestral works by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was preceded by Capriccio Espangol and Scheherezade, two works that share many qualities with the Russian Easter Festival Overture, including prominent violin and woodwind solos, and a lush and varied orchestration. It depicts the passage of time between Passion Saturday and Easter Sunday, and makes use of various chant themes from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. In his program for the piece, the composer included two scriptural quotations, and a religious poem written by the composer himself. These three passages correspond with the three sections of the piece.

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
– Psalm 68

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen.

– Mark 16:1-6

The joyous news spread throughout the universe and those who hated him fled before him and disappeared as smoke.

“Resurrexit” sang the angel choirs in heaven, to the sound of archangel trumpets and the whir of seraphim wings.

“Resurrexit” sang the priests in the temples in the midst of incense clouds and of the light of innumerable candles and the carillon of triumphant bells.

– Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Jonathan DeBruyn

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his Mass in C Major as a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Since the mid-1790s, the prince had celebrated the name day of his wife every year with a new mass, initially composed by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the court’s longtime kapellmeister (music director). By 1803, Haydn’s health forced him to stop composing, so he suggested others to continue the tradition, including Beethoven, one of his former students. Despite Beethoven’s anxiety about composing something that could match Haydn’s high standard, the Mass in C had its private premiere at the prince’s estate outside Vienna, on September 13, 1807.

The first performance proved a disappointment for all concerned. The court musicians were badly under-rehearsed, and four of the five altos in the chorus had to sight-sing their parts. The prince seemed confused by Beethoven’s approach, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who had taken over Haydn’s position as the court music director, actually laughed at it, whereupon Beethoven reportedly walked out. In private, the prince complained even more harshly, calling the work “ridiculous” and feeling “angry and mortified” about it. Two movements from the Mass, the Gloria and the Sanctus, nonetheless received their first public performance in December the following year, 1808. That marathon concert at the freezing Theater an der Wien also included the premieres of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his fourth piano concerto, and his Choral Fantasia, with Beethoven himself at the keyboard—his last public performance as a pianist, due to his declining hearing. When Beethoven published the Mass in 1812, he changed the dedication from the unappreciative prince to one of his more faithful patrons.

Later listeners have wondered at the initial negative responses. Beethoven had composed only one previous work of sacred music, the almost operatic oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803), but his Mass in C has much in common with several Haydn masses, including the use of a quartet of soloists who alternate with the chorus and elaborate fugues in the Gloria and Credo movements. In particular, it has echoes of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War(1796), also in C Major, in its dramatic use of timpani and brass. Yet listeners at the time were probably not prepared for a mass to have elements that we now see as typical of Beethoven, such as sudden changes in tempo and dynamics (volume), sometimes in the space of a single word. They may also have sensed his less than orthodox religious views. Although baptized a Catholic, Beethoven rarely attended church and seemed to seek the divine in the world around him more than in religious services. In fact, when he was composing the Missa Solemnis, he requested a translation of the text into German so he could study it better, suggesting he might not have been clear on exactly what it said; the Mass in C was his first work with a text in Latin. Compared with more familiar works expressing Haydn’s serene faith, Beethoven’s first mass may even have struck the original audience as shocking.

To modern audiences, the monumental Missa Solemnis (1823) has often overshadowed the more human-scale and traditional Mass in C. Still, as one music scholar has written, the latter “has a directness and an emotional content that the [Missa Solemnis] sometimes lacks.” If indeed Beethoven’s aim for his sacred music was, in his words, “to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners,” the rarely performed but richly rewarding Mass in C Major surely achieves that goal.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan