Beethoven: Overture to King Stephen, Opus 117 │ Mass in C Major, Opus 86

Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770 (probably, since he was baptized on the 17th), in Bonn, then an independent electorate of Germany, and died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria. He composed his Overture to King Stephen in late summer 1811, perhaps continuing until early 1812. It was premiered in a production of the play on February 9, 1812, at the Hungarian Theatre in Pest, Hungary. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the Overture in April 1949 with Pierre Monteux conducting. Michael Tilson Thomas led the Orchestra in the most recent performances of the work, in October 2007. The Overture calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about seven minutes.

Beethoven composed the Mass in C major in 1807 on commission from Prince Nicholas Esterházy, and it was performed for the first time on September 13 in the chapel at the Esterházy palace at Eisenstadt. The first known performance in America took place at the Boston Cathedral on Christmas Day 1856. The first performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in September 1983 and were conducted by Edo de Waart, featuring soprano Sheila Armstrong, mezzo-soprano Janice Taylor, tenor John Aler, baritone John Del Carlo, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The most recent performances, in December 1998, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas, with soprano Janice Watson, mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, baritone Richard Zeller, and the SFS Chorus. In addition to four-part mixed chorus and soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani, organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock at these performances), and strings. Performance time: about forty-four minutes.

Beethoven endured an unsteady relationship with the stage. He aspired relentlessly to conquer the genre of opera, and his career was littered with fervent expressions of desire, and even a few fragmentary attempts, to compose an opera worthy of his genius. In the end he managed to complete only one full-fledged opera; and, as if to underscore his unease, he actually “completed” it twice under the title Leonore before it reached the final state in which it is usually performed today, under the name Fidelio. But there was more to the stage than opera, and in other theatrical genres Beethoven scored better success. He wrote music for ballets (the Ritterballet and The Creatures of Prometheus) and incidental music, ranging from a single number to complete multi-movement collections, for a half-dozen stage plays: Egmont, Coriolan, König Stephan, Die Ruinen von Athen, Tarpeja, and Leonore Prohaska. Except for Goethe’s Egmont, all of these plays would be profoundly forgotten today but for Beethoven’s contributions to their productions. Even that has not been enough to keep most of them alive, with the result that these scores contain many of Beethoven’s least known pages.

In July 1811, Beethoven accepted a commission to provide incidental music for two dramatic pieces that were being created for the inauguration of the new Hungarian Theatre in Pest, the town that in 1872 would become the left-bank half of the consolidated city of Budapest. Since the event was slated for early October, Beethoven set to work promptly, carrying out the project while on vacation at the spa in Teplitz, Bohemia, where he was taking a cure for maladies that were plaguing him. On September 13, he dispatched his music for the two plays to the theater’s management: König Stephan: oder Ungarns erster Wohltäter (King Stephen: or Hungary’s First Benefactor) and Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens). Beethoven recounted the genesis of these works in a letter he penned on October 9, 1811:

Just as I was getting into my carriage to drive to Teplitz I received a parcel from Buda with the request to compose something for the opening of the new theatre at Pest. Well, after spending three weeks at Teplitz I felt fairly well. So, although my doctor had forbidden me to work, I sat down to do something for those moustachios who are genuinely fond of me; and on September 13, I sent off my parcel to them in the belief that the performance was to take place on October 1.

Just about then, the inaugural festivities were pushed back four months, to February 9-11, 1812, which allowed Beethoven to go on refining his music at greater leisure.

Both plays were authored by August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), a German lawyer, political journalist, government official (in Estonia), prolific playwright, magazine editor, and cultural journalist who ended up being assassinated in Mannheim by a theology student who suspected him of being a Russian spy. As befit the occasion, these were overtly nationalist plays, with King Stephen evoking incidents in the life of the late-tenth to early-eleventh-century founder of modern Hungary, and The Ruins of Athens depicting Pest as a prolongation of the ideals of ancient Athens. The two plays were designed to be part of the same festivities, with King Stephen serving as prologue (Vorspiel) and The Ruins of Athens as epilogue (Nachspiel); in between came yet another play by Kotzebue, one without any incidental music. Kotzebue’s plays were written and presented in German, which was widely employed as a “language of culture” in Pest at that time.

The only parts of these scores to hold a place in the repertory today are the Overtures, though Beethoven’s music for both was quite extensive. His biographer Barry Cooper describes both plays as being essentially singspiels, which is to say that music mingled generously with spoken text. Their musical content therefore resembled Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, for example, more than what was typical “incidental music” for a theater production of the time, in which the play was characteristically the dominant event and the music was literally incidental.

Beethoven’s music for King Stephen (Opus 117) consists of ten independent numbers, including the Overture. Together they trace the general contours of Kotzebue’s desultory plot, which begins with Stephen proclaiming the might of Hungary and continues with an act of clemency he bestows on an enemy, a scene in which he greets his bride (implying that his greatness will continue through the generations), and concluding with his coronation. It was obviously a work of very specific interest, but Beethoven was unquestionably impressed by Kotzebue’s playwriting. On January 28, 1812, after he had finished his music for the two scripts but still two weeks prior to their premieres, Beethoven wrote to Kotzebue to feel out his interest in collaborating on an opera. Ensuing correspondence confirms Kotzebue’s interest in such a project, but in the end Beethoven’s proposal led nowhere.

In his Overture to King Stephen, Beethoven took pains to incorporate something of a Hungarian flavor. Two of the principal themes reflect the Hungarian folk-styles known as lassú and friss, respectively slow and fast dance movements that were typically linked together in folk music. Both display what period listeners would have heard as Magyarisms, the first (andante conmoto, introduced by the flute) through the ornament on the first note, the second (a presto section that begins a minute into the piece) through its vivacious syncopations. In other particulars, however, this Overture is marked by gestures that seem to have evoked something vaguely humanitarian to Beethoven, particularly to the extent that they would mark his Ninth Symphony more than a decade later. The descending unisons that open the King Stephen Overture would seem to prefigure the opening of the Ninth Symphony; in both instances the effect evokes the sound of instruments tuning up. And then a later theme, introduced by flutes and clarinets, seems almost to be a variation (before the fact) of the famous Ode “To Joy” melody of the Ninth Symphony’s finale. (The Ninth Symphony connection surfaces again in the rousing conclusion of the King Stephen music, where soaring sopranos similarly adumbrate the finale of the symphony that Beethoven would begin working out a decade in the future.)

Most of us come to Beethoven’s wonderful Mass in C major knowing much better the even more wonderful Mass in D major, the Missa solemnis of 1819-23. Hearing the 1807 Mass in the perspective of the later extraordinary masterpiece, we are likely to be struck by its serene normality. Yet to Beethoven it was a “special” work—“I believe I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated,” he wrote—and Prince Esterházy, who had commissioned it, said after the first performance, “My dear Beethoven, now what have you done?”

Esterházy each year commissioned a Mass for performance on the Sunday following his wife’s name-day. That is how Haydn came to write his six late and beautiful Masses between 1796 and 1802, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who was the Esterházy Capellmeister from 1804 to 1811, also composed three Masses for the Princess Maria Hermenegild. Whether the commission for 1807 had gone to Beethoven on the recommendation of his former teacher Haydn we do not know. In any event, it all turned into an unhappy occasion for Beethoven. There was absenteeism at rehearsals. There was the Prince’s remark and Hummel’s laughter, which Beethoven misunderstood as being directed at himself rather than at Esterházy’s peculiar formulation. Moreover, Beethoven was offended at having been put up, not like a proper guest in the castle, but in damp quarters normally assigned to minor household officials. At any rate, he left as soon as possible, and when the Mass was published in 1812, it bore a dedication not to either of the Esterházys, but to Prince Ferdinand Kinsky (who with Prince Lobkowitz and the Archduke Rudolph had set up a fund in 1808 to guarantee Beethoven an annual stipend). The C major Mass had several more performances during Beethoven’s lifetime and was, upon publication, the subject of an enthusiastic review by E.T.A. Hoffmann. And interestingly, in view of later liturgical developments, Beethoven concerned himself with the possibility of making an edition in German.

Our sense of the normality of the C major Mass is obviously and greatly conditioned by the fact that we know the later Missa solemnis,completed early in 1823, so much better—and there is a work in which the text is treated as never before or since! It is tempting to think of Opus 86 as Beethoven’s “Haydn Mass.” Of course Beethoven knew the Haydn Masses and other such works in the Austrian classical tradition, and he knew what was expected chez Esterházy. But even as a younger man, writing the Opus 1 Trios and the Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, he was incapable of composing anything that was not highly individual Beethoven.

In the C major Mass, Beethoven observes certain customs—the placing of the musical articulations, ending the Gloria and the Credo with fugues, setting the Benedictus as an amiable allegretto in 2/4 time, and so on. But in fact he begins remarkably, with the chorus basses intoning the word “Kyrie”by themselves and quietly, to which the rest of the chorus and the strings respond with music of a softness that always touches us when we meet it in Beethoven, not least because it surprises us. The harmonies move quickly to a rather distant E minor and then even to E major, and the return to C—after “Christe eleison”reverts to “Kyrie eleison,”and at the first fortissimo—is abrupt and exciting (“not recommended for imitation” says E.T.A. Hoffmann). That particular key relationship is fascinating to Beethoven, as it had been to Haydn and would be to Schubert and Brahms. The assertion of it so early serves notice that a composition on a grand scale and of large energies has begun.

The Gloria starts with powerful exclamations. Beethoven moves quickly across much of the text, then to become dramatically expansive on certain phrases—“bonae voluntatis” (whereyou get one of his occasional and always striking uses of the chorus without accompaniment), or “glorificamus te.”“Gratias agimus tibi,” begun as a tenor solo, makes lovely euphony with the sustained chords of clarinets and bassoons, and the flowing quarter-notes in the strings. In the Kyrie, the harmonic explorations had been toward the side of keys with sharps; now Beethoven moves into the territory on the other side of the world, first to the F major of the “Gratias,”then culminating in the pathos-filled F minor “Qui tollis peccata mundi.” The “Cum sancto spiritu” moves with huge vigor, and one passage on the word “Amen,” done as dialogue of chorus and orchestra, presages what is surely the harmonically most dizzy-making passage at the corresponding place in the Missa solemnis. The unexpected return, compressed and excited, of “Quoniam”is one of the details Beethoven must have had in mind when he spoke of setting the text as it had not been set before.

And surely the mysterious, agitated opening of the Credo is another. We hear the wonderful shouting across great spaces, voice by voice, of “Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,” building to an exultant climax on “per quem omnia facta sunt,” from there to settle again with “qui propter nos homines”into the softness so characteristic of this Mass. A point Hoffmann makes in his review is that it has become the tendency for composers to respond in excess to details of the text and to fling the listener recklessly and brutally from abject miseries to riotous rejoicings. The mature composer, Hoffmann suggests, has a clearly defined personality and religious point of view, and a Mass by such a composer will bring all the diverse elements of the text into harmony with that basic stance. He finds the C major Mass exemplary in this respect and isolates its gentleness as its essential affect. (He died half a year before Beethoven finished the Missa solemnis,a work whose ruthless, extreme responses to the text would surely have disconcerted him.) One further detail about the Credo. I don’t know of another instance in which “qui locutus est per Prophetas”is set, as it is here, as a moment of special drama and awe.

The Sanctus, too, moves into fresh harmonic territory. After four introductory measures for the orchestra, magically scored, Beethoven again brings the special sound of the chorus singing a cappella. The Benedictus explores the differences between solo and choral voices, and its sudden move into D major—in a movement that has been lazily content not to let go of F major—comes as a flood of magic sunlight.

The Agnus Dei begins in awe. Over its repeated pleas of “miserere nobis”and its anguished, obsessive contemplations of “peccata,” the clarinet makes itself more and more independent, finally to lead the way into the muted brightness of the “dona nobis pacem.” Nofeature in the Missa solemnis is more famous than the terrifying war music in what Beethoven explicitly tells us is a prayer for both inward and outward peace. In this Mass, too, he unmistakably evokes physical terrors, and it is once again the clarinet who leads the music back to serenity. When Haydn reaches “dona nobis pacem,” he is in his allegro spirits, and his Masses end brilliantly. Beethoven’s music here is, almost to the end, full of questions, of processes begun and broken off, of latticed textures. Then, at the very last, and in one of the most touching inspirations of his whole life, he finds his way into the music with which the Mass had begun. We hear again those gentle thirds of sopranos and altos and violins, and in that ineffable moment Beethoven shows us how the prayer for peace—and every other prayer—is comprehended in the prayer of prayers, Kyrie eleison,Lord have mercy upon us.

James M. Keller (King Stephen Overture)
and Michael Steinberg (Mass in C major)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: For King Stephen—Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Singers (Sony)  |  Hans-Hubert Schönzeler conducting the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Concert Choir (in the Brilliant Classics Beethoven Edition: Complete Works)
For the Mass—Riccardo Chailly leading the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, and the Ernst Senff Chamber Choir with Susan Dunn, Margarita Zimmermann, Bruno Beccaria, and Tom Krause (London/Decca Double Decker) 

DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series(SFS Media). Also available at

Reading: Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (Norton)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, edited by Elliot Forbes (Princeton)  |  The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)