A few months after Haydn first came to England in 1784, he attended the Handel commemoration at Westminster Abbey, an event that made a enormous impact on him. “He is the master of us all,” Haydn said. The grandeur of Handel’s choruses and the English choral tradition were other impressions that the Austrian took away with him upon returning home. His most well-known choral work The Creation, was a direct outcome of his English experience and Handelian influence. His employment with the Esterházys also took a new turn with the accession of the new prince, Nicolaus II, and a reinstatement of a more significant court music program. Haydn composed six Masses between 1796 and 1802 for the celebration of the name day of Princess Marie Hermenegild, wife of the prince. While these works were intended to be celebratory, the seriousness of the times–the Napoleonic war–is reflected in the Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Time of Distress). The connection with Lord Nelson has not been firmly established, but Haydn is known to have admired the British admiral. News of Nelson’s victory at Aboukar against Napoleon came to Austria around the time of the first performance of the mass. In addition, two years later Nelson visited with Haydn in Eisenstadt and most likely this piece was performed for him.
Composed in 1798, the Lord Nelson Mass was first performed on September 23 of that year and is Haydn’s largest mass, as well as one of his most beloved choral/orchestral 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 woodwinds--Prince Esterhazy had dismissed the wind players to fight in the war--and the use of three trumpets and timpani in the accompaniment creates a military feel, perhaps influencing its name.
The mass is also notable for the “fireworks” demanded of the soprano soloist, in the tragic, war torn Kyrie through the Gloria and beyond. While most contemporary mass settings make a clear distinction between arias and choral sections, as in the manner of opera, the solos and ensemble passages in the Nelson Mass remain closely integrated with the chorus. The “Qui tollis” section of the Gloria starts surprisingly in B-flat 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 center 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 V is a world away from the serene, prayerful setting that might be expected. This is typically presented as a quiet meditation, but Haydn’s setting begins with a stormy orchestral introduction, moving through a series of exchanges between soloists and chorus, to culminate in a strikingly dissonant passage. The G Major Agnus Dei provides the chorus a little respite as the soloists take center stage, before “Dona nobis pacem” returns triumphantly to D Major in a joyous finale.
© Ryan Turner