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


Precisely how the Nelson Mass became so called, when and by whom shall probably never be known. What is at least clear is that within a month of the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798) Haydn had completed a Mass in D Minor, and within months of the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) that same mass had become known as the Nelson Mass.

In early 1798 Napoleon assembled a substantial invasion force and sailed east into the Mediterranean. The news soon reached British naval intelligence. By the time Nelson, in command of the British fleet, located the force off Egypt Napoleon had captured Malta and most of Egypt, his aim being to press further east and capture British possessions in India. Nelson, catching the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, immediately attacked and annihilated it, and his victory, popularly known as the Battle of the Nile, reverberated around Europe and beyond. Nelson returned to Naples and was heralded as the 'saviour of Europe'. Napoleon, now in a desperate situation, eventually cast off his army and, dodging British frigates, returned alone with his staff to France.
At this stage, so far as Nelson was concerned, in stepped fate in the form of Lady Hamilton.
Sir William and Lady Hamilton were well regarded in Naples; he as 'our man in Naples' and she as a beauty. Nelson fell for her and a ménage a trois was soon established. The Admiralty soon learned of Nelson's behaviour but it was nearly two years before they could order Nelson to return home, and then only after Nelson had so arranged matters to travel overland with the Hamiltons via Austria and Germany. The route included Vienna, and from there Nelson and the Hamiltons visited Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt and so met Haydn in 1800.
Amongst his other court duties Haydn was required to produce a new mass each year for the name-day of Princess Esterhazy. Two years previously, in the summer of 1798, Haydn had composed a mass in the key of D minor. He could not have known of the Battle of the Nile until weeks after the mass was finished, so the mass was certainly not written for that Nelson victory. The original manuscript of that mass has neither title nor motto, and bears nothing but the pious formulae 'In nomine Domini' at the start and 'Laus Deo' at the end.
However, both the Mass in D Minor (probably) and the Te Deum (certainly) were performed to honour Nelson during his visit, together with a brief cantata, Lines from the Battle of the Nile, which Haydn composed for Lady Hamilton. Nelson and Haydn apparently became friends - some accounts (or perhaps legends) tell that Nelson gave Haydn a gold watch he had won at Aboukir Bay, in return for the pen that was used to compose Lady Hamilton's cantata.
It is likely that the name Nelson Mass began being applied to this piece some time after this event, although the name was never used by Haydn himself. Haydn later catalogued this mass as Missa in Angustiis ('mass for times of distress'), a reflection of the uncertain times in which it was written. In another authentic catalogue of Haydn's works of 1805, where it is listed as Number 10 of the masses, this work is not given a special title. It was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in March 1803 as Number 3 of the masses by Haydn, but still without any caption. The first vocal score, made by Novello and published in London in 1824, is also without a special title. Still more confusingly, the score was published in Paris in 1811 entitled L'Imperiale, including the note 'Cette Messe a été composée pour le couronnement de Joseph II'. Joseph II had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor more than thirty years before the mass was written!
© Aylesbury Choral Society, December 2003

The writer is most grateful to the Nelson Society for their permission to extract details from the book 'Admiral Nelson and Joseph Haydn' by Otto Erich Deutsch.

The Nelson Mass
Haydn's own title for this mass, Missa in Angustiis ('mass for times of distress'), would lead one to expect a dark piece, with an undercurrent of fear. Certainly the opening Kyrie features dark and dramatic fanfares, and belongs to the sound world of Mozart's Requiem, which was written in the same decade. However there are also contemplative and joyful movements and a jubilant finale. Remember that Haydn wrote this mass and others for the name-day of Princess Esterhazy. It would not do to celebrate such an important event with sombre music!
This is Haydn's largest mass, and one of his most well-known and beloved choral works. It is also his only minor-key mass, set in D minor at the opening, but leading to a victorious D major finale. The orchestra does not include woodwind, and the use of three trumpets and timpani in the accompaniment creates a military feel (which perhaps contributed to the work's eventual name).
The mass is also notable for the 'fireworks' demanded of the soprano soloist, in the tragic, war-torn Kyrie through the D major Gloria and beyond. But while most contemporary mass settings make a clear distinction between arias and choral sections, in the manner of opera, the solos and ensemble passages in the Nelson Mass in the main remain closely integrated with the chorus.
The Qui tollis section of the Gloria starts surprisingly in Bb major, where the bass is accompanied by some lovely scoring for the strings and organ. The soprano returns us to D major for Quoniam tu solus sanctus and Part II ends with a choral fugue.
An extraordinary opening to the Credo has the sopranos and tenors competing in canon with the altos and basses to the sound of fanfaring trumpets. Et incarnatus begins with a gorgeous aria for the soprano soloist, before the emotional centre of the piece is taken up by the chorus who lead to a glorious D major finish once again in Et resurrexit.
The Benedictus in Part IV is a world away from the serene, prayerful setting that might be expected. This is typically set as a quiet meditation, but Haydn's setting begins with a stormy orchestral introduction, moves through a series of exchanges between soloists and chorus, and culminates in a strikingly dissonant passage. The G major Agnus Dei provides the chorus a little respite as the soloists take centre stage, before Dona nobis pacem returns triumphantly to D major in a joyous finale.


© Aylesbury Choral Society, December 2003

[Note to other societies: you are welcome to use the whole or parts of this text in your own programmes, but if you do please (i)
let us know, and (ii) include an acknowledgement to the Aylesbury Choral Society and this website in your programme.]