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Haydn: “Missa in tempore belli”

Prince Anton Esterhazy had died in 1794 after a very short time at the family helm. Haydn’s new employer, the younger Prince Nikolaus, was anxious to reestablish the musical chapel. He asked of his celebrated Kapellmeister only an annual Mass for the nameday of his Princess Marie Hermenegild, nee Lichtenstein. This was 8 September, a church celebration for the birthday of the Virgin Mary; Haydn’s mass would typically be given the next Sunday.Between 1796 and 1802 Haydn composed for this contrapuntal arrangement six marvelous masses, symphonic in scope, assured of technical command, and vividly heralding the new century. These were the St. Bernard Mass (1796), the Mass in Time of War (for 1797), the Lord Nelson Mass(1798), the St. Theresa Mass (1799), the “Creation” Mass (1801) ; so called because it quotes, at the Miserere, the music of “dew-dropping morn” from the oratorio); and the Harmoniemesse (1802, so called for its prominent use of wind band, or Harmonie). There is some uncertainty  as to the order of composition and performance of the first two masses, since both were composed in 1796; not it seems probable that the “Mass in Time of War” was the one intended for performance on the princess’s nameday in 1797. In fact, the Eisenstadt performance was delayed some three weeks in order to be presented during the visit to Eisenstadt of the Palatine Archduke Joseph, viceroy of Hungary.

In 1796, Austria remained at war with the French, and things were going poorly: by 1797 Napoleon had occupied Graz. What makes this a mass appropriate to a “time of war” are the persistent timpani strokes in the Agnus Dei  -suggestions of distant strife, perhaps- and the particular urgency here of the plea for peace with which every mass concludes. The choice of key, C major, is optimistic, for C major is the key of victory.
The overall sound of the mass is coloured by the bravura passagework for the soprano soloist. The orchestration, too, is striking, particularly that of the more lavish Vienna version, with its flute, clarinets (note the fine run at the beginning of the Gloria ), and expanded horn parts. Haydn could customarily summon stronger forces in Vienna than in Eisenstadt; in the prince’s band, for example, the horn players also played the trumpet parts, while in Vienna a pair of horns would double the trumpets.

After a sinister introduction, the Kyrie is set forth in what was for Haydn a rather typical monothematic sonata form. (The arrival of the second area occurs where the alto soloist is given the main theme.) The Gloria begins and ends in a fast 3/4; these sections surround an arioso for the bass soloist, at “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” with a lovely obliggato for solo cello later joined by the flute. Here, as elsewhere in Haydn’s masses, the words “miserere nobis” and suscipe, deprecationem nostram” are declaimed homorphonically, a texture that lends those sentiments great poignancy, as humankind begs collectively mercy. The Credo is similar in structure to the Gloria, with big fugues at the beginning and end (at “Et vitam venturi saeculi”). In the middle are “Et incarnatus” for the solo quartet, led by the bass soloist, and the customarily exuberant “Et resurrexit,” which returns to the initial major key and rapid triple meter.

The Sanctus begins slowly and with a Baroque-style walking bass, then turns abruptly to a vigorous “Pleni” with wind and brass, strongly tinted by the minor mode; its concision is meant as a foil to the great Benedictus which follows, a siciliana for the soloists. It is in the Agnus Dei, as I have noted, that our thoughts are drawn to troubled times. The big, affirmative Dona nobis dwells emphatically on the word “pacem” -an aspiration that must have been uppermost in the listeners’ minds that year.

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