Classical: When Haydn Met Nelson before Tomorrow Night's Prom, Bayan Northcott Examines One of the Most Extraordinary Sacred Works of the 18th Century
Northcott, Bayan, The Independent (London, England)
It was a tense time. Napoleon's flotilla had somehow evaded the British blockade, and Nelson was beating up and down the Mediterranean trying to find it. Meanwhile, Joseph Haydn, at 66 the most famous composer in Europe, was closetted at Eisenstadt castle near Vienna, fulfilling his annual commitment to the Esterhazy family that had employed him for so long.
Much had changed for him over the previous eight years. The death in 1790 of the old, music-loving Prince Esterhazy had at last freed Haydn to travel to England on two triumphant visits during which he had crowned his symphonic output with his 12 "London" Symphonies, but those visits had also revealed to him the majesty of Handel, focusing his subsequent efforts upon the composition of two vast neo-Handelian oratorios, The Creation (1798), and The Seasons (1801).
Yet, for old time's sake, he also undertook to produce a ceremonial Mass with full orchestra each year for the Name Day of the current Princess Esterhazy - though the new prince was no music lover and, on grounds of economy, had sacked most of the wind players in his orchestra by the time Haydn sat down to compose his third such Mass, in that fraught summer of 1798.
However, it seemed that he could still call upon three trumpets and drums (presumably retained to play fanfares at Esterhazy banquets) to supplement the remaining string players, plus an organ part for himself, and this somewhat stark line-up would have to do. After six weeks' work, Haydn ruled off the final bar of what he had decided to call his Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Time of Fear) with his usual inscription "Fine Laus Deo" and the date, 31 August. By then it was four weeks since Nelson had at last cornered and smashed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. But news still travelled slowly in 1798, and it seems that Eisenstadt only heard a few days before the new work was first performed on 23 September.
It is not clear whether the nickname "Nelson" Mass attached itself there and then, or two years later when, mid-way through a triumphal progress across Europe, Nelson himself stopped at Eisenstadt for four festive days - with Sir William Hamilton and his Lady (the redoubtable Emma, no less) in tow. Witnesses who disapproved of their rumoured menage a trois were already gossiping spitefully about Emma's decreasing charms and increasing girth, but she still had a voice and evidently hit it off with Haydn, who accompanied her in a little cantata he had set to a text about the Nile victory and presented her with the manuscript. At which Nelson requested the great composer's music quill as a souvenir, presenting him in return with the gold watch he had carried during the battle itself.
If, as seems probable, Nelson also attended a hearing of the Mass that has ever since borne his name, he must certainly have thrilled to its opening, for no previous liturgical work had ever launched itself with such a martial clamour. Against sustained organ blasts of D minor, trumpets and drums sound out implacable fanfares, the strings stamp and implore and the choir enters with urgent cries of "Kyrie eleison". But then, a mere six pages into the score, something happens which, while it would certainly have pleased Emma, has disconcerted many other listeners since. Suddenly the tonality switches into the major mode and the solo soprano insinuates her "Christe eleison" in a sequence of florid, almost skittish flourishes. How could Haydn so utterly undercut the grim intentness of his opening? No doubt he himself would have proffered his standard explanation: that he could not help feeling cheerful at the thought of the good Lord. No doubt historically aware commentators could explain such decorative incursions as part of Haydn's rococo heritage. And, after all, the drama and wit of his symphonic writing often turned upon the most abrupt switches of mood and style. But what have drama and wit, let alone quasi-operatic soprano solos, to do with the true spirit of the liturgy? …