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The Lord Nelson Mass

posted Jun 1, 2014, 10:45 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jun 1, 2014, 4:23 PM ]
In the summer of 1798, Joseph Haydn suffered from exhaustion after premiering his oratorio The Creation. One of the most prominent and prolific composers of the Classical period, this 66-year-old was a life-long resident of Austria. Yet times were tense and uncertain. Napoleon had already defeated the Austrian armies and threatened Vienna, and had now broken through the allied naval blockade and appeared ready to conquer Egypt. So when Haydn's patron, Nikolaus II, Prince Esterházy requested he compose a Mass for his wife's name day, he called it Missa in Angustiis (Mass in a Time of Troubles).

But in mid-September, about a week before it was to premiere, word reached Vienna that the British Admiral Horatio Nelson had destroyed Napoleon's fleet in a brilliant victory at Aboukir. Exactly how or when Missa in Angustiis became popularly known as “The Lord Nelson Mass” is something no one can say for certain, but surely its 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 mind.

Its orchestration is unusual. To save money, the Prince had recently dismissed his woodwind players and horns, and Haydn was only able to hire trumpets and timpani to supplement the string ensemble. Occasionally, the organ – which Haydn himself played at the premiere – is given a solo passage, as if to compensate for the missing woodwinds.

Please join the Park Slope Singers next Sunday, June 8 at 5:00 pm in St. Augustine Church as they present, with orchestra, Haydn's Mass No. 11 in D minor, Missa in Angustiis / “The Lord Nelson Mass”. For more information about tickets or the reception following, please visit parkslopesingers.org.