Programme notes

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

Kyrie eleison; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei

Precisely how the Nelson Mass became so called, when and by whom shall probably never be known. Nelson, following significant  achievements, was ordered by the Admiralty in about 1800 to return home: he arranged matters so that he  travelled 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.

In the summer of 1798 Haydn had completed a Mass in D Minor which was premiered in September, when news reached the court, and indeed most of Europe, of Nelson’s dramatic success in the Battle of the Nile  (1 August). Haydn 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 has neither title nor motto, and bears nothing but the pious formulaic In nomine Domini at the start and Laus Deo at the end.

It seems that the Mass in D Minor was performed to honour Nelson during his visit, together with a Te Deum and 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 (scene of the Battle), 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. Haydn himself 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 1805 catalogue of Haydn’s works, 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!

The opening key and mood recall Mozart’s Requiem, written only two years earlier; however, there are also contemplative and joyful movements and a jubilant finale. Written at the height of his powers, there are many striking features in the counterpoint, orchestration and expressive juxtaposition of quick and slow sections. Perhaps the most unusual moments are the major-key Crucifixus (he was crucified) followed by the minor-key Et Resurrexit (and he rose again)—the opposite of tradition—and the rather stormy setting of the Benedictus, usually set as a quiet meditation. This is Haydn’s largest mass setting and also the only one predominantly in the minor key.

Colin Touchin

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