Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass”

Unless you are a seasoned choral singer, lover of choral music or frequent concert goer, you may not know about what H.C. Robbins Landon (a major biographer of the composer) says is “arguably Haydn’s single greatest composition.” The mass that Haydn titled Missa in angustiis, has, however, been regarded somewhat variably.  One biographer claims it is his most uncharacteristic and least satisfying work.  While I am certainly no Haydn scholar, I am inclined to say that this work is at least among his finest. 

All of Haydn’s late choral works—six masses and his two great oratorios—are masterworks.  Most have become choral chestnuts and are performed with some frequency throughout the USA and Europe. They all reveal the great skill, maturity and inventiveness of the master.  Much of Haydn’s earliest opus is not, at least to untrained ears, markedly different than what was produced by at least a dozen other composers during the era.  This is evident in his choral works as well: his relatively early Missa Sancti Nicolai, while appealing and pleasant, seems rather insipid compared with the last six masses.  And while this article focuses on just one of his late masses, partly to point out specific instances of Haydn’s great creativity and talent, the others are also worthy compositions. 

Some lovers of classical music tend to avoid or even shun vocal or choral music because it generally requires more engagement to be fully appreciated, and this usually means reading an original text or a libretto and translation.  Choral composers are also notorious for employing the technique of “word painting:” attempting to make the music somehow evoke or “paint” the meaning of the text. And while “word painting” and other “romantic” techniques were often eschewed by the purists of the period, these techniques, which had been around for hundreds of years (at least), hardly vanished during the Classical Era. 

One may certainly enjoy choral music without regard to subtleties like word painting; however, some knowledge can enhance appreciation of the music.  Haydn regularly uses word painting in much of his choral work, though his late masses seem to be rife with the technique.  For example, the “Et incarnatus est” of the Credo begins with a gracefully descending melody suggesting the graceful descent of Son of God in the Incarnation (the tenderness of the music at this point may also be evocative of the Virgin Mother: “ex Maria Virgine”).  Perhaps some musicians and musicologists try to read too much into a work, but Haydn’s musical education was so deep that he would have certainly appreciated and been able to employ this technique that had been successfully used by countless Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers before him. 

A little history to set the stage for the Lord Nelson Mass: Haydn had returned to Austria from his sojourns in Paris and London.  He had recently composed many masterworks, which had become popular and lucrative—the Paris and London symphonies most notably. Nikolaus II, his patron in Austria at this time, was the great grandson and grandson of his first two musically inclined patrons. Nikolaus II, was generally concerned with things other than music, and his main requirement of Haydn was that he write a mass annually for the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Hermenegild.  Haydn was now a part-time employee and paid significantly less than he had been by his first two patrons.  Fortunately the composer had amassed some wealth and did not depend on patronage (this also allowed him the freedom he needed in order to compose the oratorios). 

There is no record of the reason Haydn titled the mass the in angustiis.  (“Angustiis” meaning “distresses” or “straits” has come to us in the word “anguish.”)  Among the theories: the Napoleonic threat to Austria (the actual Napoleonic Wars were a future event), Haydn’s personal health, or even the situation with his current young and decadent patron.  Whatever Haydn’s motivation, I, and many others, find this mass to be a sublime statement of the power of faith during times of distresses or difficulties.  The mass alternates between music of somber, troubled and even terrified character and music of confidence, jubilance and peacefulness. 

Nikolaus II had had the woodwind section of the orchestra dismissed sometime before Haydn was to create this mass. Some accounts say they had been dismissed due to financial difficulties, but that seems unlikely because Haydn or the Prince’s more musically inclined wife successfully convinced the Prince to rehire them within months. At least one account indicates that the Prince simply was not fond of the “effete” winds.  This left Haydn with an orchestra of strings, trumpets, timpani and continuo instruments (harpsichord and/or organ). Some have suggested this might be the “strait” Haydn was ironically or humorously referring to in his title, since by this time woodwinds had become a requisite and prized part of the orchestra for most composers, Haydn included. 

This orchestral configuration, did lend itself to music with a military character, and this is apparent at times.  The mass begins, as is customary for nearly all settings, with the “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.”  It is set in d-minor and the prayer for mercy becomes an almost terrified cry at the point where the soprano soloist’s vocal pleas rocket toward the heavens. The choir, trumpets and timpani also insistently repeat the kyrie eleison motif intensifying the urgency. 

The minor mode recurs in the mass and, foreboding as it is in Haydn’s hands, never takes the upper hand; Papa Haydn’s sunnier disposition breaks through in due time.  After the dire first movement, the “Gloria in excelsis” almost shocks with its jubilant major-key opening statement. The Gloria moves through many moods, but ends in a confident fugue which demonstrates Haydn’s mastery of the art of counterpoint. 

The inventive compositional technique of the first sub-movement of the “Credo” (it is divided into three separate movements) is a two part canon that stands on equal footing with much of Bach’s inventive and complex output. The sopranos and tenors, singing in octaves, begin the declamation followed shortly by altos and basses a fifth lower, but otherwise in exact imitation. (The genius of this movement is often lost on listeners because it just sounds so ebullient and effortless; many musicians, however, have a deep admiration for the great artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating it.) 

Most composers, and Haydn is no exception, deal very sensitively, carefully and imaginatively with the central portion of the Credo: “et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto…et ascendit in cælum.” Being less abstract than much of the Creed, these phrases allow for more vivid word and mood painting. 

The last sub-movement of the “Credo” is a text that is often given short shrift.  In the hands of many composers it may even become an unintelligible garble.  Haydn’s careful, deliberate treatment suggests this part of the Creed is significant and not to be passed over lightly. 

The military tone returns in the “Benedictus” (part of the Sanctus in the mass proper, but often separated by composers),  the minor key lending weight, and the trumpets repeatedly heralding alarms, subtly at first. At the climactic moment of this movement and perhaps the entire mass, the trumpets joined by timpani, become almost unrelenting and apocalyptic as the chorus declaims a fortissimo “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.” The sopranos soar into the stratosphere on that phase as well. This somber mood soon is turned on its head by the joyful “Hosanna in excelsis.” 

Although this work has been declared is uncharacteristic of Haydn,  the "Lord Nelson Mass," like another he had composed previously (the “Paukenmesse” or “Kettledrum Mass”),  shares many moods and stylistic techniques found in works of his “Sturm und Drang” period from earlier in his career.  While it is true that most of  Haydn’s work is up-beat and  major-key, he certainly should be allowed latitude to have created other valid styles and moods of music. 

The “Lord Nelson” epithet was tied to this mass early. It was composed during the summer of 1798 before news of Admiral Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon’s forces in the early August “Battle of the Nile.” reached Europe.  By the time the mass was first performed in September the good news had arrived.  Perhaps the military tone of some of the movements and the somewhat triumphal ending inspired the epithet.  It became permanently attached when in 1800 Admiral Nelson visited the Esterházy palace and in all likelihood heard this mass.  He certainly would have known of the mass’s flattering name before his visit to Austria. 

There are many recordings. Three I am familiar with: 

The 1964 (re-released in 2000) King’s College recording is very good, though a bit heavy or stodgy in a few places. This recording clearly captures the contrast between the ominous or military portions and the confident or jubilant portions. This recording uses a reduced size (though perhaps not reduced enough) London Symphony Orchestra and is conducted by Sir David Willcocks. The emotion of this recording seems engaging without being too romanticized, though I am confident there are some who would disagree. 

The 1986 Trevor Pinnock recording, with the English Concert and English Concert Choir is a personal favorite, it has better clarity than the King’s College version, though it may lack, on occasion, the emotional intensity of the King’s recording. Perhaps it is a more “Classical” rendition. 

John Eliot Gardiner with The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists recorded this and the rest of the late Haydn masses in the early 2000s. These are also generally good or very good recordings; the clarity is good and there is “Classical” restraint in handling some of the more “romantic” sections. The fast tempi sometimes border on frantic, but that is common to a number of Gardiner performances, possibly a matter of personal taste. While I like many of Gardiner’s recordings, I think he has pushed the limit with the fast tempo of the last movement so it feels agitated and frenetic and not conclusive. The final text of the ordinary of the mass, is the petition “dona nobis pacem.” Most recordings do actually “grant” peace, at least in some degree, by allowing the music to bring the mass to a satisfying conclusion. Gardiner may be making a “statement” that I am not sure Haydn would wish to make. 

I have performed this work live with choir and orchestra three times, and each time has provided more discoveries. While I do not keep “top 10” type lists, this mass certainly ranks among the best choral works that I know. I have performed many works in my 35-year “career” of singing in choirs; some I am glad to perform only once, some I am glad to perform twice, a few I am glad to perform thrice or more and the Missa in angustiis is definitely in that last category. 

David Wihowski

David Wihowski

10 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you Mr. Wihowski. Years ago when I wanted some guidance on classical music I picked up a book called Beethoven or Bust by David Hurwitz. In it he provides 88 groups of four compositions in a compare/contrast format based on a common theme. He includes many of Haydyn’s compositions in the book. The Lord Nelson Mass is in group 79 so I am not sure I have a copy of it.

    When I started the book I would get all four compositions of a group and listen to them, which is a time consuming process. Huwitz gave only brief comments on what to notice about each composition letting the music speak for itself. As a result of the book I gathered quite a collection of very good music. I also subscribed to the BBC Music magazine for a considerable time so have a large number of CDs that they included in each issue. The Mass may be on one of them.

    I will have to see if I have a copy of The Lord Nelson Mass and try to find one of the versions you recommend.

    By the way, Hurwitz grouped Cherubini’s Coronation Mass, Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, and Walton’s Coronation Te Deum with Haydn’s Mass. The scheme was to match Haydn with Cherubini and Janacek and Cherubini with Walton.

  2. Harry Colin says:

    I listened to the Pinnock recording yesterday and enjoyed it immensely; Mr. Wihowski’s explanatory piece helped me to hear it and feel it more efficaciously than I could have prior to reading it. Thanks much!

  3. Thomas Fleming says:

    I just got a copy for my wife. We both number Haydn among our favorite composers and regard him as a kind of litmus test. I’ve noticed that in recent years, music historians, listing the “all time great composers” have dropped Haydn and prefer Stravinsky and Bartok. In this case I should say “De gustibus acriter disputandum est.”

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have obtained a CD version of the King’s College version and a streaming (MP3) version of the Kinnock version. Have not reviewed my other CDs, which are in temporary storage while we complete a major home remodel that has been going on far too long.

  5. David Wihowski says:

    Mr. Colin, you are welcome. I hope you will listen to the mass several times in the future. There is much depth in it. I don’t like giving away too much about a piece, so I leave a lot out when describing a work. That way there are more discoveries to be made.

  6. David Wihowski says:

    Dr. Fleming, I don’t keep up with what music historians say “recently” in many regards, especially in their evaluation of composers. I am surprised they mention Bartok as “great.” He was rather old-fashioned by modern standards–his music is rather tonal compared with many of his contemporaries, plus he was devoted to Hungarian folk music and used many folk tunes in his composition. I can occasionally listen to Bartok without too much wincing, unlike Berg, Schoenberg and Webern whose music seems to lack almost any redeeming quality (though playing their music loudly with your windows open may incite a major ruckus in your neighborhood).

  7. Thomas Fleming says:

    I agree entirely on Bartok. The violin concerto is fun and even the percussive piano concerto. I think he is favored as a compromise to the vulgar–Schoenberg et cie can still not be sold.

  8. Dot says:

    I heard some of two presentations of the “Lord Nelson’s Mass and thought it was too loud – more of a performance for concert attendees than a Mass. The one CD I have containing a composition by Haydn is his Symphonie No. 88 but it is the Symphonie No. 9 by Franz Schubert, also on this CD, that I like the most.

  9. David Wihowski says:

    Dot: The “Lord Nelson” (as most masses composed from at least the late Baroque period and beyond) were rarely performed in a liturgical setting, and if they were it was usually for a very celebratory mass. They were largely intended to be concert pieces, rather like Handel’s oratorios: set to a sacred text, but not intended for liturgical use. Haydn’s masses may have been performed as part of the Princess’s name day mass, but they were more than likely performed as an afternoon or evening concert on her name day. Since these kind of mass settings were not intended for liturgical use, it gave the composers more freedom in how they set the text.

  10. Dot says:

    Thank you for setting me straight.