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With a sound to rival their Viennese counterparts, the American Boychoir directed by James Litton, one of America’s most prominent choral conductors, is a joy to listen to. They deliver here a pure and innocent performance with a traditional feel of Haydn's Mass and Vespers.
Throughout Europe Holy Innocents Day came to be observed as the day of the 'boy bishop' ('episcopus puerum' or 'innocentium'). Each year, in the great cathedrals and abbeys, early in the Advent season, on St Nicholas Day (6 December), one of the boy choristers was elected the boy bishop, as a part of elaborate preparations for Holy Innocents Day. He, as elected 'bishop of the day' along with the other choristers, would lead over the daily round of liturgical offices, including his presiding at the celebration of Mass.
The role of the boy bishop led to the development of many local ceremonies and customs, with the division between liturgy and liturgical drama becoming a narrow distinction. In many regions this liturgical 'role-play' moved away from the liturgy and into the life of the larger community, in the form of frivolous and often boisterous child-like sport, games and pranks.
In the music of the liturgy, Holy Innocents Day became an occasion for the boy choristers to sing alone, without the usual men’s voices (tenors and basses—and in some places, altos as well). By 1431 because of its ever-increasing secular tendencies, the Council of Basle prohibited the custom of the boy bishop, but its popularity remained untainted, and it continued to be observed, especially in German-speaking lands, with its special ceremonies and often elaborate vestments.
Johann Michael Haydn, like his older brother, Franz Josef, received his early musical training as a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. At 25 he was appointed court musician and concertmaster to the prince archbishop in Salzburg, where he remained until his death. His colleagues in Salzburg included Leopold Mozart and his son, Wolfgang Amadeus. While Josef Haydn’s great instrumental works have won him a much honoured place in history, as the 'father of the string quartet and symphony', Michael Haydn achieved considerable fame during his lifetime as a composer of liturgical music. Of his nearly 800 surviving compositions, more than two-thirds are music for the Church, including about fifty Masses, numerous Vesper settings and over 200 Graduals, Offertories and Mass Propers.
The continuation of the popular 'boy-bishop' custom in Salzburg provided Michael Haydn an opportunity to compose a large repertoire of Masses, Propers and Vespers for his Salzburg choristers. These liturgical compositions were scored for three-part treble voices (two sopranos and alto) and orchestra. There are few other examples of music for boys’ voices alone, until the 20th century when composers such as Benjamin Britten wrote important works for boys’ voices, such as his Missa brevis and Ceremony of Carols. Since the use of boys’ voices in choirs had greatly diminished (except in the British Isles and in a few Continental choral foundations) by the turn of the nineteenth century, these works by Michael Haydn are of major significance.
The Missa St Leopoldi must have been the last mass that Michael Haydn composed, having been written in December 1805 for that year’s Holy Innocents Day celebration. (Haydn died on 10 August 1806 at the age of 68.) The Vespers for Holy Innocents is a mature work as well, composed in 1793. The music of both these works is in the style of the period, so brilliantly developed by Joseph Haydn (and others) and firmly established by Mozart. Michael Haydn’s music, especially in these works, could be described as more 'folk-like' and tuneful. His choral writing often looks back to baroque influences, and even earlier, in the use of unison cantus firmus, psalm and antiphon tones.
The writing for the choristers’ voices perfectly fits the sonority and ranges of the younger and teenage boys. The alto parts, especially, surely delighted the older boys, giving them opportunities to explore their newly developing lower range, while soloists are challenged to display their full chorister professionalism. This is truly music for boys to sing, showing that Michael Haydn, unlike many other composers entrusted with similar chorister training responsibilities, obviously delighted in teaching, rehearsing and conducting his young singers. He gave them music to relish during the one day in the year when they were 'in charge'.
These works are neglected miniature masterpieces, which deserve to be performed more often in the future. It is hoped that boys’ and children’s choirs will include them in their repertory. Their three-part texture is reflected in the lighter string sound of the orchestra (without violas, as was the custom in Salzburg’s church music) with two horns, continuo organ and solo organ.
This recording is a partial reconstruction of a Mass and Vespers for Holy Innocents Day as may have been sung in Salzburg during the early nineteenth century. In addition to the Mass Ordinary and Vesper Psalm settings by Michael Haydn, the Mass includes the Propers of the day sung to chant, and Vespers includes the Psalm and Magnificat chant antiphons and other liturgical chant. The Mass Gradual is a 1783 setting of the proper Holy Innocents Day Laudate Pueri for boys’ voices and orchestra also by Michael Haydn. The Mozart church sonatas for strings and organ are included as instrumental substitutes for the propers, which was the late eighteenth-century practice in Salzburg Cathedral.
Performing editions used on this disc are based on the manuscript sources in the Munich Staatsbibliothek. The Vespers antiphons are from an early 18th-century Salzburg Antiphonal in the Munich Staatsbibliothek and were loaned through the courtesy of Dr Richard Marlow of Trinity College, Cambridge. His assistance in the location and preparation of other recording materials is greatly appreciated.
The Michael Haydn and Mozart pieces and the plainsong are performed at A=430Hz.
Malcolm Bruno assisted in the preparation of scores and parts for the performing edition, as well as in the compilation of the plainsong. His enthusiastic support in all aspects of this recording is greatly appreciated, while John Leigh Nixon prepared the plainsong Propers and Lections, to whom grateful acknowledgment is also made.
James Litton © 2001