Classical: When Haydn met Nelson

Before tomorrow night's Prom, Bayan Northcott examines one of the most extraordinary sacred works of the 18th century
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The Independent Culture
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?

In fact, over its long history, the Church has nursed a recurrent suspicion of musicians: that, unless their settings of the liturgy are confined within the strictest, most "impersonal" rules, they will drag in secular styles, use the Mass as a vehicle for compositional display or, worst of all, as a means of conveying their personal feelings about religion, the Zeitgeist, or goodness knows what (those Renaissance Masses based on popular songs! Those theatrical requiems from Berlioz to Britten!). In Haydn's day, the approved Church style remained a kind of neo-Baroque counterpoint, founded, in turn, upon a tradition of instruction supposedly enshrining the "purity" of Palestrina.

Haydn was, of course, an outstanding contrapuntist, and the "Nelson" Mass includes many deft passages of imitative part-writing and a couple of energetic fugues - at the ends of the Gloria and Agnus dei - while the opening sequence of the Credo proceeds in strict canon for pages. More problematic is how such orthodoxies relate to other aspects of the work. For, although Haydn had given up writing symphonies since No 104, the six late Masses all attempt to marry the weight of Baroque procedures to the momentum of symphonic thought. Add to this the operatic inflections of the solo vocal writing, the irrepressible cheerfulness of Haydn's personal faith, and the fact that at least two of the Masses allude to contemporary events, and one has some sense of the precariousness of the synthesis he was attempting to achieve - a precariousness perhaps emblematic of the established Church itself in an era of Revolution, and caught between the rational ideology of the Enlightenment and the new subjectivity of Romanticism.

For some critics, notably Charles Rosen in his great study The Classical Style, the late Haydn Masses remain "uncomfortable compromises". Yet a really cogent performance of the "Nelson" Mass can still suggest otherwise. For, that brief moment of major-key frivolity notwithstanding, the Kyrie proves a particularly terse sonata structure, in minor keys all the rest of the way, and with a tremendous moment of recapitulation as the soprano billows like some Fury of the Storm over the battering trumpets and drums.

Moreover, that early touch of major in a predominantly minor movement turns out to be the harbinger of a tonal ambivalence that runs through the whole score. The Gloria, Credo and Sanctus may all begin and end in major keys befitting their celebratory texts, but each shows a tendency to drift towards an ominous minor tonality in mid-flow - most strikingly in the "Benedictus" section of the Sanctus, where the admonitory trumpets and drums boom out more sternly than even in the Kyrie.

And if Haydn refrained from a similar stroke in the final "Dona nobis pacem", this was doubtless only because he had already inserted the effect of distant gunfire at the same point in his earlier Mass in Time of War (1796) - a passage that Beethoven was to remember and amplify to terrifying effect in his Missa Solemnis.

Like so much of Haydn, the late Masses lapsed into more than a century of disregard soon after his death. Yet it was ultimately a fine recording of the "Nelson" Mass from Kings' College, Cambridge, in 1962 that was to initiate their rediscovery by the musical public.

The inclusion in this year's Proms of no less than 10 pieces by Haydn suggests how his stock continues to rise. Already there have been strong readings of three of the symphonies from Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus, Vienna, and the Academy of Ancient Music under Paul Goodwin, while Cecilia Bartoli has rampaged through an aria from Haydn's last opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. But tomorrow's account of the "Nelson" Mass by the Colegium Musicum 90 Choir and Orchestra under Richard Hickox - who have already produced a superb recording in a fine series of the Haydn masses on Chandos Records - could yet prove the high spot.

The `Nelson' Mass will be broadcast live tomorrow on Radio 3 at 8pm, and repeated on 28 July at 2pm.