Every composer has hidden gems in their oeuvre. For Ludwig van Beethoven — whose full output is standard repertoire in most genres — such a work is harder to find. But his Mass in C Major, composed on commission in 1807, is an excellent candidate.
“Listeners may know so much about the composer, but have never heard this piece,” says Boulder Chamber Orchestra Music Director Bahman Saless, whose musicians will join forces with vocalists from the Boulder Chamber Chorale to present the mass in an upcoming performance at Boulder Adventist Church on April 1. “Brand new Beethoven will be a rare experience for many, and it is an absolutely gorgeous piece.”
But several factors hindered the piece from the outset, not least the reaction of its commissioner. Austro-Hungarian Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II was the final patron of Joseph Haydn, who established a tradition of writing a new mass setting each year for the baptismal name day of the prince’s wife. Haydn had ceased this in 1802 as his health began to fail. When Beethoven received the commission, he studied his former teacher’s masses and emulated them, as he was less experienced in the composition of church music, but he also sought to write something new.
Upon presenting his mass to the prince, the composer admitted trepidation in following the “inimitable masterworks of the great Haydn,” but also confidently asserted that he had set the five sections of the text as had not been done before. After the performance, Esterházy was not impressed with those differences and belittled the mass, causing Beethoven to leave in a huff.
Another problem facing the Mass in C Major is the fame of its much larger companion, the Missa Solemnis in D Major, a visionary product of the late style contemporary with the Ninth Symphony.
“It’s certainly overshadowed by the Missa Solemnis, but it’s so much better than its reputation,” Saless says. “Its mood changes are amazing, and its catchy little melodies leave a strong impression.”
Boulder Chorale Director Vicki Burrichter calls the mass one of her favorite pieces. “It has all the elements that people love about Beethoven, the things that straddle the classical and romantic periods,” she says. “It’s got the romantic high drama of later Beethoven but also the clarity of texture and form that looks back to Mozart and Haydn.”
Burrichter especially appreciates the way Beethoven integrates the four vocal soloists into the choral texture as opposed to giving them certain sections as solo arias. “They are intertwined throughout and often presented as a unified group, which lends cohesion to the whole,” she says.
Dramatic changes, ‘fantastic fugues’
When it comes to the Mass in C Major, one of Beethoven’s most inspired innovations is the seamless return of the intensely beautiful music of the opening Kyrie movement at the very end of the closing Agnus Dei.
“I remember breaking into tears when I conducted that for the first time 20 years ago,” Burrichter says. “It’s so effective and moving how that music comes back.” She also praises the “fantastic fugues” that close the Gloria and Credo movements.
“Beethoven was really trying everything and showing what he could do,” she continues. “The constant and sudden changes in dynamics hint at what he would do in the Ninth and the Missa Solemnis, and present a challenge for the singers.”
For collaboration with Saless’ small orchestra, Burrichter employs 32 of the best vocalists from the more than 200 comprising the full Boulder Chorale. Of the soloists, three are recent or current students at CU Boulder’s College of Music. Mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Razafinjatovo earned her master’s in 2022. Tenor Paul Wolf is finishing his doctorate in musical arts, and baritone Brandon Tyler Padgett is in the artist diploma program. Soprano Cristin Colvin is new to the area and a member of Denver Immersive Opera.
The Mass in C is only 50 minutes long, and there will be no intermission. Saless will open with Beethoven’s familiar and dramatic Coriolanus Overture. That piece is in C minor, and its subdued ending will provide a smooth transition into the quiet opening of the Kyrie movement. Saless plans to connect them without pause.
Those details are sure to add up to an unforgettable performance of an under-appreciated work when the two organizations share the stage. The partnership goes back to their presentation of the Mozart Requiem in 2018, and their concert with Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem in February 2020 was one of the last events in the area before the pandemic shutdown. Ultimately, Burrichter says the fruitfulness of the collaboration is due in large part to a shared vision and a willingness to explore new ideas.
“Bahman and I are simpatico when choosing repertoire,” she says. “He’s very open, and I hope that I am too.”
ON THE BILL: Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Boulder Chorale present Beethoven’s Mass in C. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave. Tickets here.