Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass) - Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)


Haydn witnessed many radical changes during the course of his life. He was eighteen when Bach died in 1750 and seventy-two when Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony was first performed in 1804. Throughout this period Haydn was a pioneering figure, exploiting the untapped potential of the symphony, sonata and string quartet and developing them to a hitherto unimagined degree. The almost childlike cheerfulness of his music, its fusion of exuberance, unfailing invention, classical elegance and intellectual power, explains to a large extent its compelling appeal. These are the qualities that placed Haydn far and away above all except Mozart amongst his contemporaries. He was hailed as a genius throughout Europe, admired and revered by the public and by his peers. Mozart said, ‘Haydn alone has the secret both of making me smile and of touching my innermost soul’. Even Napoleon, on capturing Vienna, immediately ordered a guard of honour to be placed round Haydn’s house.

The supreme choral masterpieces of Haydn’s old age – The Creation, The Seasons and the six last great masses – were all composed after he had completed the last of his 104 symphonies. In 1795 Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, Haydn’s employer at Eisenstadt, commissioned him to compose a new setting of the mass each year to mark the name-day of his wife, Princess Maria. At that time the Viennese mass was generally a relatively straightforward affair with organ accompaniment and perhaps a small group of strings. Haydn’s early masses are mostly of this type but now, in his sixties yet still alert to any opportunity for innovation, he proceeded to expand the format, integrating the orchestral and vocal forces in an extended symphonic choral work. The superb Nelson Mass of 1798, the third and most celebrated of these last masses, was described by the late H C Robbins Landon, chief biographer and leading authority on Haydn, as ‘arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition’.

In 1800, Nelson, heralded as the saviour of Europe since his recent crushing victory over Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile, visited Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, where he and Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton met Haydn. Whilst there, Haydn’s Te Deum and the Mass in D minor, as the Nelson Mass was originally called, were performed in his honour. It used to be assumed that the mass had been inspired by Nelson’s victory but we now know that news of the battle did not reach Eisenstadt until two weeks after the work was completed. It may have been the militaristic tone of the Kyrie and Benedictus that prompted the firm association with Eisenstadt’s celebrated guest, but whatever the reason, after his visit it became known as the Nelson Mass. Haydn later catalogued it as Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times), a clear reference to the Napoleonic threat previously recognized in his Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War) of 1796.

For economic reasons Prince Nikolaus had dismissed nearly all the wind players from his court orchestra, leaving Haydn with only trumpets, timpani, organ and strings. With typical resourcefulness he turned this apparent disadvantage into an opportunity, creating a highly distinctive sonority found in no other mass. His writing for the trumpets is particularly imaginative; he exploits to great effect their dark lower tones as well as their familiar bright upper register.

The dramatic Kyrie eleison opens in D minor, with foreboding low trumpet fanfares. At Christe eleison the music moves to a brighter F major and the first of a series of virtuosic soprano solos is heard. Unsurprisingly, the Gloria reveals Haydn at his most cheerful, recalling the sunny world of The Creation, first performed a few months earlier. The bass solo, Qui tollis peccata mundi, is a clear reference to the Tuba mirum in Mozart’s Requiem, and evidently intended as a tribute to Haydn’s admired colleague. After this slower section the soprano soloist brings us back to the key of D for Quoniam tu solus, and the movement ends with a spirited fugue.

The Credo begins with an austere canon between sopranos and tenors, and altos and basses, which after the exquisite Et incarnatus est leads to an intense Crucifixus. The following Et resurrexit bursts into life with explosive energy, with a truly wonderful soprano solo at Et vitam venturi.

After the Sanctus comes the remarkable Benedictus, a movement of exceptional emotional and dramatic intensity. It was customary for these words to be set to contemplative, pastoral music but in this mass Haydn returns to the dark D minor tones heard in the Kyrie, with trumpets and timpani again playing a prominent role. A series of exchanges between soloists and chorus culminates in an almost Beethovenian climax. The Agnus Dei, sung by soloists only, is followed by an extended Dona nobis pacem which, in contrast to the usual supplicatory prayer, is almost operatic in style, typical of Haydn at his most exuberant.

Despite the foreboding of the Kyrie and Benedictus, the prevailing mood of the Nelson Mass is one of jubilation. Haydn once observed, At the thought of God my heart leaps for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’ The sparkling vitality of the Nelson Mass is the very epitome of that statement.  

John Bawden


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