Between Tradition and Innovation: Sacred Intersections and the Symphonic Impulse in Haydn's Late Masses

Article excerpt

With respect to composition, Catholic Church music up until several years ago still had much of its own special character. But nowadays operatic music also forces its way into churches everywhere, and, what is worse, [it is] the insipid Italian opera music of the new style. In Vienna, too, I found it all too conspicuous. During many a Credo or Benedictus I knew not whether perhaps I was hearing music from an Italian opera buffa. (1)

This colorful anecdote, with slight modifications, may apply to a number of contexts in western music history when church music was under indictment for its divergence from accepted musical practices and traditions. In this case, the description refers to music performed during Mass at a Viennese church in 1781. By the end of the eighteenth century, as this eyewitness account illustrates, composers had adopted styles and modes of writing for the church that, more often than not, alluded to a strong cross-fertilization between instrumental and operatic genres, in defiance of the little-observed eighteenth-century separation among church, theater, and chamber music styles. Viennese composers, in particular, had cultivated a hybrid music style, the so-called concerted mass, (2) whose musical language and formal procedures pioneered a symphonic outlook. Haydn's last six masses simultaneously encapsulate and usher in stylistic changes that helped redefine the mass as a genre in the beginning of the nineteenth century and, as a result, influenced the musical language of the romantic mass. This essay explores this little-researched line of inquiry and considers the implications of Haydn's style--which blurs the boundaries between sacred and secular, the church and the concert hall--for sacred music aesthetics in the long nineteenth century.

The Mass

Classicism inherited from previous eras the High Mass, a genre that was closely bound up with the church, a musical setting of the ordinary for liturgical use. Since the early Renaissance, the text of the Latin ordinary has constituted the most frequently-set sacred text, with the added peculiarity that it has remained unchangeable in its overall form over the centuries. For over four hundred years, ever since the first polyphonic mass settings, the liminal space between the sacred and the secular had often been crossed. It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century, however, that the previously distinct three areas of church, chamber, and theater music, started to mesh, as composers appropriated modes of writing for the church associated with secular genres, resulting in church music that exhibited little distinction between secular and sacred styles.

Late-eighteenth century "abuses" in church music (a term used throughout history whenever church music was at odds with the established aesthetics of the time) were linked to the infiltration of operatic practices and elaborate instrumental music. In his pioneering work on the early concerted mass, Bruce Mac Intyre rightly surmised that churches may be viewed as the first concert halls in Vienna. The musical activity of concerted pieces for church functions became so extreme that a later writer called them "church concerts with liturgical accompaniment." (3) Such an indictment against contemporary musical practices reflects the threat that church music was perceived to face against a traditional status quo, and compelled major theorists of the eighteenth century to redefine the role of church music as an edifying force, and as a facilitator of prayer. In his major theoretical work Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), Viennese Hofkapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux asserted that the chief purpose of church music during service was "to arouse devotion" ("zur Erweckung der Andacht"). (4) In his Critischer Musikus of 1737, Johann Adolf Scheibe argued that, "The chief purpose of church music is principally to edify the listeners, to encourage their prayer so as to thereby awaken in them a quiet and holy reverence before God's presence. …


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