Program Notes

Beethoven’s Mass in C  – April 22, 2023

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Danses concertantes
Composed in 1942

In 1939, Stravinsky suffered what he called “the most tragic year of my life.” His daughter, wife and mother all died within months of each other, and the outbreak of World War II sent him into exile for the second time, from his adopted home in Paris to the United States. He married his longtime mistress Vera in 1940, and together they started a new life in West Hollywood in 1941. Stravinsky soon accepted a commission from a local conductor, Werner Janssen, and began what would be his first major work composed entirely in the United States, Danses concertantes.

The musical language of Danses concertantes is typical of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, full of quick character changes, crisp rhythms, bone-dry textures, and tight harmonies. With its small orchestra and ample instrumental solos, Danses concertantes exhibits a kinship to the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto from 1938; the two works have been called Stravinsky’s “Brandenburgs,” after Bach’s famous set of mixed-ensemble concertos. Even though Stravinsky designed Danses concertantes for the concert stage, it did not take long for its inherent dance sensibility to be recognized. Stravinsky’s friend and longtime collaborator George Balanchine was the first to choreograph the work when he created a version in 1944 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a successor to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Danses concertantes begins with an introductory march, its steady meter obscured by shifting layers and displaced accents. The only extended solo in this preparatory movement is for the leader of the six-member violin section. The second movement is a pas d’action, borrowing a term from ballet for an ensemble dance.

The third movement, taking the form of a theme and variations, is the longest and most abstracted of the work. The thematic section is tender and diffuse, and the playful variations and shuffling coda bear little surface resemblance to the theme. The pas de deux borrows another dance convention: a dance for two, often for the romantic leads. Here, the oboe and clarinet take the spotlight, their duet surrounded by other reveries. The concluding march revisits the opening music. © Aaron Grad

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Mass in C Major Op. 86
Composed in 1807

Beethoven’s Mass in C was a serious test for the distinguished composer. The Mass in C was composed at the request of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II. At this point in his life, Beethoven realized his deafness was growing worse, causing his mental health to also deteriorate. Furthermore, Beethoven had very little experience setting sacred texts. Joseph Haydn, who was Esterhazy’s former house composer and Beethoven’s former teacher, was very skilled in composing Masses, putting a lot of pressure on Beethoven.

While Beethoven approached this commission with unease, an outstanding masterpiece arose from these difficult circumstances. Beethoven’s experience with this piece also lent to his future success with the sacred masterpiece, Missa Solemnis.

Despite Beethoven’s innovative and often wild temperament as a composer, his Mass in C Major follows the traditional customs for a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in the Classical era. In the Catholic Church, the liturgy is comprised of texts sung by the choir to teach the gospels, and two groups of the Mass text exist— the Proper of the Mass and the Ordinary of the Mass. The ordinary employs texts that remain the same for every mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Beethoven’s five movements of his Mass in C adhere to these conventional parts of the Mass. Another element of this Mass worth noting is the use of four vocal soloists standing out from the choir. These four vocalists are treated in context as a unified quartet of voices lyrically interwoven into the text.

Beethoven added quite a few of his own touches, making the piece a unique Mass composition. Some examples of this include the rapidly crescendoing repetition of the word “Credo” adding force to the Credo movement, escalating harmonies at the end of the Gloria movement, and the constant traveling of keys throughout each movement. Beethoven speaks of his own Mass, believing that he “treated the text as it has seldom been treated before.”

Perhaps a lot of this creativity arises from the fact that Beethoven was working on perhaps his most renowned work, Symphony in C, his Fifth Symphony at the same time he was composing his Mass in C.

Beethoven’s Mass in C is a humanistic, religious, and artistic expression that combines the splendor of the old traditions with his new and fresh ideas that heightened the Romantic period. This piece is a true display of Beethoven’s brilliance.

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