Haydn called his mass Missa in Angustiis (Mass in a Time of Anxiety). In the previous year, Napoleon had defeated the Austrian armies and threatened Vienna, and then, in the summer of 1798, he had broken through the allied naval blockade and appeared ready to conquer Egypt. It was a tense and uncertain time, but in mid-September, about a week before Haydn’s new mass was to be performed, word reached Vienna that the British admiral Horatio Nelson had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in a brilliant victory at Aboukir. Exactly how or when Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis became popularly known as the Lord Nelson Mass is something that no one even at that time was able to say for certain, but surely the first listeners would have associated the terrifying trumpets and timpani of the opening ‘Kyrie’ and the jubilant, dramatic music that followed with the political turmoil — and now the military victory — that was on everyone’s minds. Two years later, Haydn performed this work before the conquering hero himself during his visit to the Esterházy palace at Eisenstadt.
Composing masses for the name day of the princess was among the few obligations remaining to the aging Capellmeister in his later years. By this time, Haydn, who was widely celebrated as the greatest living composer, was no longer writing symphonies, piano sonatas or trios. Rather, he had entered a period that represented not only the pinnacle of his achievement as a composer but also a new direction, a period devoted mainly to a series of vocal masterworks. The Lord Nelson Mass, written immediately after his oratorio The Creation, is the third of his six great masses written during this time.
Its orchestration is unusual and striking. In an effort to save money, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy had recently dismissed his woodwind players and horns, and Haydn was able to hire only trumpets and timpani to supplement his string ensemble. Occasionally, the organ — which Haydn himself played at the premiere — is given a brief solo passage, as if to compensate for the missing woodwinds. But out of this limited orchestration, Haydn created the stark, memorable sound that makes this mass so distinctive and powerful.
The strong, rhythmic D minor opening of the ‘Kyrie’ establishes the tense tone of a work written ‘in angustiis,’ in a time of anxiety. In the ‘Benedictus’, we particularly feel this tension, when the trumpets and timpani repeat a powerful military rhythm, as the chorus intones its text on one note, an effect that conjures thoughts of the Last Judgment. However, much of the rest of the work is in a more joyful and brilliant D Major. Throughout, Haydn creates a fascinating mix of Baroque-style counterpoint, still older Gregorian chant, and modern virtuosic writing in the lively string parts. For the opening of the ‘Credo’, the chorus sings a strict canon with the two voice parts (sung in octaves) imitating each other at the interval of a fifth; the rigidity of a canon, meaning literally ‘rule’ or ‘law,’ seems particularly apt for this strong declaration of faith. In the ‘et resurrexit’, the chorus ‘speaks’ a portion of its lengthy text, declaiming it on one repeated note. Here Haydn, who set his mass texts from memory, has apparently inadvertently omitted the words, ‘qui ex Patre Filioque procedit’ (indicated by an ellipsis of three dots in the text on the following pages).
Despite the distinctive sonority of this mass, there were attempts made to ‘normalize’ its orchestration by adding woodwinds and horns. Indeed Haydn made some suggestions to editors about how they might do this, but he did not supervise their work. An early edition published by Breitkopf during Haydn’s lifetime, which was based on a pirated version that was full of errors, not only added a full complement of winds but also eliminated the organ solos and simplified the trumpet parts. In that form, the mass became extremely popular.
Not long after the premiere of this mass, Haydn simplified — and some say weakened — several passages in the solo vocal parts, evidently in order to make them easier to sing for less accomplished soloists. In places, this involved lowering high notes and thus changing the contours of some of the melodic lines.
from notes by Martin Pearlman © 2013