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Beethoven’s first Mass owes its composition to the same reason as Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass: it was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy to celebrate his wife’s name day. In his early years in Vienna, Beethoven had avoided such direct comparison to the work of Haydn, his one-time teacher and generally recognized as Europe’s greatest living composer. But in 1807 Haydn was too old for the assignment (his last name-day mass had been written in 1802), Nikolaus turned to Beethoven, and, now fully confident in his own powers and standing, the younger composer accepted the commission.

Though Beethoven was on hand for it, the under-rehearsed premiere, September 13 in the Esterházy palace at Eisenstadt, was not a success. Prince Nikolaus was baffled by this “unbearably ridiculous and detestable” work, Beethoven left in anger, and when it was published five years and several stronger performances later, the piece was dedicated to Prince Kinsky. 

Beethoven called Haydn’s masses “inimitable masterpieces” when he accepted the commission, and it is clear that he studied them well in his preparation. His sketches for the Gloria, for example, include passages copied from Haydn’s “Creation” Mass. But Beethoven also departed significantly from tradition generally and Haydn’s models particularly. He noted this proudly in writing to his publisher (Breitkopf & Härtel, which had also published four of Haydn’s masses), “I believe that I have handled the text as it has seldom yet been treated.”

That is immediately apparent, as the chorus basses have the first two notes all to themselves, before the rest of the choir and the strings join them. Though Beethoven does follow broad conventions in his treatment of the standard mass movements, such as the grandly quasi-fugal conclusions of the Gloria and Credo, he also indulges in highly original and dramatic touches throughout, such as the opening blossoming of the Credo or the very end, when he returns that opening music of the Kyrie, now heralded by the string accompaniment, in the final bars of the Dona nobis pacem.

One important characteristic that Beethoven’s Mass shares with Haydn’s is joy. “Apart from Kyrie eleison [and the richly expressive Agnus Dei, one might add], cheerfulness pervades this Mass,” Beethoven wrote, selling the piece to his reluctant publisher. “The Catholic goes to church on Sunday in his best clothes and in a joyful and festive mood.” — John Henken