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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN, J.: Masses, Vol. 3 - Masses Nos. 6, "Nikolaimesse" and 11, "Nelsonmesse" (Trinity Choir, Rebel Baroque Orchestra, Burdick)
Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai is his only early Mass that can be directly connected to the Esterházy court. As the title suggests, it was probably intended for the Feast of St Nicholas which was also the name day of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. Composed over twenty-five years later in 1798, the Missa in angustiis is the third of Haydn’s six late Masses. The nickname ‘Nelson Mass’ was added several years later, possibly as a result of the famous English Admiral’s visit to Eisenstadt in September of 1800.
The ‘father of the symphony’ and master of conversational wit in the string quartet, [Franz] Joseph Haydn is viewed today principally in the light of his instrumental music. According to his nineteenth-century biographer Georg August Griesinger, however, Haydn sometimes wondered if ‘instead of so many quartets, sonatas, and symphonies, he should have written more vocal music’ ¹. While our modern image of Haydn tends to neglect his vocal compositions, they comprise a large part of his oeuvre—and sacred music in particular played a unique role in his musical development. Haydn’s formative musical experiences were as a choirboy, and his first and last compositions were Mass settings. His Masses were popular during his lifetime, travelling to Catholic countries all along the Danube and making their way into concert halls after Breitkopf and Härtel published seven of them in the first part of the nineteenth century. Sacred music also figured prominently in the composer’s musical philosophy; in Haydn’s mind, compositional process and even artistic inspiration were indelibly linked to spirituality. Griesinger reports: ‘“If, when I am composing, things don’t go quite right,” I heard him say, “I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then the ideas come again.”’ ² While his instrumental music is clearly inspired, perhaps Haydn’s sacred music—in particular, his twelve complete and authenticated Mass settings—brings us closest to the source of his artistic inspiration.
Haydn showed vocal talent at an early age. Around 1740, the Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s in Vienna, Georg Reutter, recruited him as a choirboy. Haydn received a well-rounded musical education at the church, learning keyboard, violin and composition in addition to singing. In his autobiographical writings, Haydn gives a light-hearted description of his early attempts to compose: ‘I used to think then that it was all right if only the paper were pretty full. Reutter laughed at my immature output, at measures that no throat and no instrument could have executed, and he scolded me for composing in sixteen parts before I understood two-part setting.’ ³ Reutter’s instruction was predominantly practical in nature; although Haydn remembered only two formal lessons, Griesinger writes that ‘Reutter did encourage him to make whatever variations he liked on the motets and the Salves that he had to sing in church, and this practice early led him to ideas of his own, which Reutter corrected’ 4. Haydn was forced to leave the school when his voice broke, and at the juncture of this important transition composed his first authenticated Mass, the Missa brevis in F major (1749). After leaving St Stephen’s, Haydn moved into the Michaelerhaus near St Michael’s Cathedral—coincidentally several floors above the famous librettist Metastasio. Through the poet he met the Italian composer Nicola Porpora, whom he credited with teaching him the Italian singing style and manner of composition. As Haydn said in 1766, ‘I wrote diligently, but not entirely correctly, until I had the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the celebrated Porpora’ 5.
As with most composers of his era, Haydn’s musical output was closely linked to the needs of patrons. In 1761 he was hired as an assistant to the Esterházy court’s aging Kapellmeister Gregor Werner and was put in charge of all musical activities with the exception of sacred music, a responsibility that was added after Werner’s death in 1766. In spite of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy’s reported lack of interest in church music, Haydn composed a number of sacred works between 1766 and 1772 that showcase his facility with the various styles and traditions associated with Austrian church music, including the first Missa Cellensis (or Cäcilienmesse), the Stabat Mater, the Missa in honorem BVM (or Grosse Orgelsolomesse) and the Missa Sancti Nicolai (or Nikolaimesse). After the construction of an Italian opera house and marionette theatre at Eszterháza, the Prince’s new summer residence, Haydn transferred his focus from sacred to secular vocal music, composing only two Mass settings between 1772 and 1782: the Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (or Kleine Orgelsolomesse) in the mid 1770s, and the second Missa Cellensis (the Mariazellermesse) in 1782.
With Prince Nicolaus’s preference for opera, his successor Prince Anton’s complete lack of interest in music, and the emperor Joseph II’s church music reforms of the 1780s all working against him, Haydn didn’t return to the Mass text for fourteen years. After Prince Anton’s death in 1794, however, the new prince, Nicolaus II, called his Kapellmeister back into service. Whereas Prince Nicolaus I had preferred the isolation of Eszterháza in Hungary, Nicolaus II enjoyed the more urban setting of Vienna, and Haydn stayed in the city until his death in 1809 (with the exception of summers, when he travelled with the Esterházy court to Eisenstadt). As part of his duties, Haydn was required to write a Mass each year to celebrate the nameday of Princess Marie Hermenegild, Nicolaus II’s wife, and between 1796 and 1802 Haydn composed six Masses in fulfilment of this responsibility: the Heiligmesse, Paukenmesse, Nelsonmesse, Theresienmesse, Schöpfungsmesse and Harmoniemesse. Haydn’s relationship with Nicolaus II was sometimes rocky, but the Princess was much friendlier than her notoriously difficult husband and reportedly made sure that Haydn’s favourite wine (Málaga) was served to him on a regular basis. While some of Haydn’s contemporaries criticised his late Masses as ‘too cheerful to be sacred’, their exuberance is perhaps due at least in part to his warm relationship with the Princess.
Haydn’s association with the Esterházy family may have provided the impetus for most of his Mass settings, but his ideas about faith in general gave them their unique spirit. Haydn’s biographer Griesinger writes of the composer’s approach to religion: ‘Altogether his devotion was not of a sort which is gloomy and forever in penance but rather cheerful, reconciled, trusting—and in this mould his church music, too, is composed.’ 6 This optimistic quality caused a certain amount of consternation, particularly in regard to Haydn’s late Masses. According to Haydn’s student Sigismund Neukomm, some maligned the works for their ‘more elegant and less ecclesiastical style’ 7. Albert Christoph Dies, another contemporary biographer, commented that some listeners found Haydn’s lively tempos and frequent use of waltz-like metres more suitable for the dance hall than the church, while the theatrical arias ‘with their exaggeratedly sensual and superficial performances…can very easily banish devotion but can never awaken it’ 8. As these criticisms illustrate, listeners had particular expectations when it came to sacred music, and Haydn’s settings depend upon an intimate acquaintance with these established Viennese traditions. At the same time that the works illustrate his fluency with the vernacular of sacred music, however, the Masses display an inspiration and an originality that belong to Haydn alone.
Missa Sancti Nicolai, ‘Nikolaimesse’ in G major
Although Haydn composed all his Mass settings as an employee of the Esterházy family, the Missa Sancti Nicolai in G is the only early Mass that can be directly connected to the court. As the title suggests, the Mass was probably intended for the Feast of St Nicholas on 6 December, which was also the nameday of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. While it was customary to celebrate with the performance of a Mass in the Eisenstadt castle chapel, this seems to be one of the few times (with the exception of the final six Masses) that Haydn actually wrote a new piece for the occasion. After an unusually long season at Eszterháza, the Prince had finally agreed to allow the musicians to return to Eisenstadt, and it has been suggested that the Missa Sancti Nicolai was Haydn’s way of thanking him. If so, Haydn probably wrote the work rather quickly—and indeed, several of the work’s features hint that time may have been of the essence. First, Haydn himself helped prepare the parts for the first performance; he set several lines of text simultaneously in the Credo; and he also repeated the Kyrie music for the ‘Dona nobis pacem’, a common procedure in eighteenth-century Austrian Masses.
Doubtless inspired by the position of Nicolaus’s nameday in the liturgical calendar, the Missa Sancti Nicolai is an example of a pastoral Mass, a sub-genre
associated with Advent that uses various musical techniques to evoke pastoral images associated with the humble birth of Christ, such as shepherds in a field. In Austria and Germany, the setting is sometimes referred to as the ‘Mass in six-four time’, referring to the unusual lilting metre of the Kyrie and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ that was a common pastoral trait. The work is also in G major, a key frequently used in pastoral Masses to distinguish them from the more common C major. While Haydn does not import its procedures wholesale, the pastoral Mass’s simple melodies, choral unisons and direct quality make the emotional landscape of the Missa Sancti Nicolai particularly vivid; in a small way, it even foreshadows the Masses he was yet to write. The special quality of the six late Masses is most frequently linked to the new symphonic style, but perhaps the pastoral’s folksy appeal and picturesque imagery also made a small but meaningful contribution to Haydn’s musical vocabulary.
Missa in angustiis, ‘Nelsonmesse’ (‘Nelson Mass’) in D minor
Composed over twenty-five years later in 1798, the Nelsonmesse is the third of Haydn’s six late Masses. Although it is assumed that the work was composed for the Princess’s nameday in early September, there is no extant evidence directly connecting the Mass to the nameday celebration. On the contrary, the Mass’s first recorded performance was not until 23 September—several weeks after the festivities would have taken place. The setting’s title raises additional questions about the work’s inception. As with most of Haydn’s late Masses, the nickname, ‘Nelson Mass’, was added several years later, possibly as a result of the Admiral’s visit to Eisenstadt in September of 1800 (not because of Nelson’s 1798 victory over Napoleon in the Battle of Aboukir, which Haydn did not know about until after he had completed the work). In his personal catalogue, Haydn actually titled the work Missa in angustiis, or ‘Mass in time of affliction, in anxiety and danger’, referring either to Austria’s political turmoil or to his own state of mind while writing the work. Whether the title refers to contemporary political events or the more prosaic worry of trying to meet a deadline, it seems an odd choice for a princess’s nameday Mass. As one scholar has recently demonstrated, however, contemporary listeners would not have found the political reference unusual; the Austrian observance of the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary had been linked to the 1683 liberation of Vienna from the Turkish army for over a hundred years. In light of current events, Haydn’s emphasis on this connection would thus have been more than appropriate. Furthermore, the manuscript shows that Haydn composed the Mass between 10 July and 31 August, an unusually short span of time implying a deadline that loomed sooner than the end of September.
If questions remain about Haydn’s compositional intent, the Nelsonmesse’s expressive intensity perhaps ends the discussion. Nicolaus II had recently dismissed his Harmonie (wind band) in an attempt to reduce expenses, forcing Haydn to compose without the complement of winds available for the Heiligmesse and Paukenmesse. The instrumentation he subsequently chose—strings, organ, three trumpets (perhaps hired just for the occasion) and timpani—has an undeniably martial tone, and gives the Nelsonmesse a particularly distinctive character. Another noteworthy feature is the juxtaposition of extremes established immediately in the Kyrie and Gloria. In the Kyrie, aggressive chords in the trumpets and strings and Haydn’s use of the minor mode strike a tone of urgency, while frenzied soprano flourishes hover above the texture. The striking contrast of the Gloria’s dazzlingly overt optimism sets up the work’s main dramatic conceit: a seemingly irresolvable tension between darkness and light. In spite of the Gloria’s sunny demeanour, glimpses of the original gloom soon re-emerge, particularly at ‘Laudamus te’. This contrast is also explicit in the Benedictus (the section of the Mass that increasingly became Haydn’s locus of expression), in which an ominous rhythmic figure in the trumpets eventually eclipses the choral texture. Resolution comes with the concluding ‘Dona
nobis pacem’, however, as the massive full chorus transcends all ambiguity.
One of the most often-discussed features of Haydn’s late Masses is his almost symphonic use of form, a feature that is usually attributed to the influence of his recently composed ‘London’ symphonies. While this is valid in many respects, scholars caution against overstating the connection. The three-part sonata form (exposition—development—recapitulation) is inherently similar to the tripartite structures that continually inform the structure of the Mass texts, while Baroque ritornello form also uses thematic repetition as an organising principle. The Gloria of the Nelsonmesse offers a good illustration of the way in which these old and new forms are interrelated. The first and last sections (‘Gloria in excelsis’ and ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’) share the same theme in precisely the same arrangement, creating the effect of a grand return in nearly sonata-like style. Haydn repeats this theme in various guises elsewhere in the movement, however, borrowing equally from the older ritornello procedure. Neither bound to musical expression of individual phrases nor blindly obedient to musical architecture, Haydn creates a sense of drama in the Nelsonmesse—and indeed in all his Mass settings—that is wholly his own.
Jennifer More Glagov
¹ James Webster, ‘Haydn’s sacred vocal music and the aesthetics of salvation’ in Haydn Studies, ed. W. Dean Sutcliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 35
² H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn, Chronicle and Works, Vol. IV (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 124
³ Daniel Heartz, Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 237
4 Ibid., 236
5 Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn, ed. David Wyn Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 289
6 Landon, IV, 124
7 Ibid., 125
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HAYDN, J.: Masses, Vol. 3 - Masses Nos. 6, "Nikola...