The ineffable and the effable

Tonight we’re singing Beethoven’s Mass in C, which is one of those undeservedly underperformed works — at least, compared to the rest of the Beethoven corpus. Compared to the average early English sacred work, it’s practically ubiquitous.

It’s an interesting setting of the work for an interesting time. Beethoven wrote the work in 1807, and it’s hard not to hear the work through the filter of the political and cultural upheavals of the epoch. What role did the mass text have, what resonance and relevance, after revolutions ripped apart the old fabric of monarchies? You can hear some if Beethoven’s response in the setting of the Credo, which opens on an agitato string accompaniment and a low murmured “credo” from the chorus; as our director has remarked, it’s more question than declamation.

And yet there are oceanic passages throughout that speak to a deep tradition–the sacred chant and response of the Benedictus are probably the clearest connection to the old traditions. It is a work that repays close study, and performance.

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