Beethoven’s Mass in C, op 86

The Mass in C was composed in 1807, a period of prodigious output when Beethoven was in his mid-30s.

He had slowly become adjusted to his deafness, and a protracted, unhappy love-affair had been finished and buried. In 1806, Beethoven composed his 4th Piano Concerto, the 4th symphony, the violin concerto, the Appassionata Sonata and the 3 Rasumovsky quartets. Nearly all his music was received ecstatically and his fame and reputation blossomed across Europe.

On the strength of this, Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy commissioned Beethoven to write a Mass for his wife’s name’s-day on 13th September 1807. Given that Haydn had written six masterpieces marking this occasion in previous years, and Beethoven had not written a single mass until now, this caused him some consternation. Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Hummel had succeeded Haydn as the Esterhazys’ Kappellmeister and had written slightly less distinguished works for the occasion, but Beethoven was, rightly, nervous of comparison with Haydn.

The Mass he produced proved inventive, novel and striking – quite different from anything Haydn or Hummel could have written. Although Beethoven was pleased with his work it did not find favour with the Prince. The Prince, indeed made a barbed comment about it; to make matters worse, Hummel laughed, so ending a long friendship. But there was no stopping the flow of masterpieces from Beethoven’s pen: his next work was to complete the 5th Symphony.