Missa in Angustiis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Missa in Angustiis ("Mass for troubled times") or "Nelson Mass" (Hob. XXII:11), is one of fourteen masses written by Joseph Haydn. It is one of the six masses written near the end of his life which are now seen as a culmination of Haydn's liturgical composition.


Lord Nelson, for whom the "Nelson Mass" is nicknamed

Haydn's chief biographer, H. C. Robbins Landon, has written that this mass "is arguably Haydn's greatest single composition". [1] Written in 1798, it is one of the six late masses by Haydn for the Esterhazy family composed after taking a short hiatus when elaborate church music was inhibited by the Josephinian reforms of the 1780s. The late sacred works of Haydn are masterworks influenced by the experience of his London symphonies and highlight the soloists and chorus while allowing the orchestra to play a prominent role.[2]

Owing to the political and financial instability of this period in European history, Haydn's patron Nikolaus II dismissed the Feldharmonie, or wind band octet, shortly before Haydn wrote the Missa in Angustiis for the Princess's name day.[2] Haydn, therefore, was left with a "dark" orchestra composed of strings, trumpets, timpani, and organ.[3] Later editors and arrangers added what they perceived to be missing woodwind parts, but the original scoring has again become the accepted choice for modern performances

Though in 1798, when he wrote this Mass, Haydn's reputation was at its peak, his world was in turmoil. Napoleon had won four major battles with Austria in less than a year. The previous year, in early 1797, his armies had crossed the Alps and threatened Vienna itself. In May 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt to destroy Britain's trade routes to the East.

The summer of 1798 was therefore a terrifying time for Austria, and when Haydn finished this Mass, his own title, in the catalogue of his works, was "Missa in Angustiis" or "Mass for Troubled Times". What Haydn did not know when he wrote the Mass, but what he and his audience heard (perhaps on the very day of the first performance September 15), was that on Aug. 1, Napoleon had been dealt a stunning defeat in the Battle of the Nile by British forces led by Admiral Horatio Nelson. Because of this coincidence, the Mass gradually acquired the nickname "Lord Nelson Mass". The title became indelible when in 1800, Lord Nelson himself visited the Palais Esterházy, accompanied by his British mistress, Lady Hamilton, and may have heard the Mass performed.[4]

Haydn's original title may also have come from illness and exhaustion at this time following the supervision of the first performances of The Creation, completed a few months earlier, or even from the challenge of composing without the desired instrumentation.[5] The solo parts for two of the vocal quartet are virtuosic, the bass line perhaps written for the accomplished Christian Specht, and the soprano line, even more demanding, could have been written for Barbara Pilhofer or Therese Gassmann. The piece was premiered September 23, 1798 at the Stadtpfarr church, a last minute venue change from the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt.

For Haydn, writing the Mass in the late summer of 1798, the mood in Eisenstadt was one of great foreboding. Some interpretatations of the piece have this zeitgeist referred to in the opening. Haydn chose to write the opening movement in D minor. During the course of the composition the mood shifts as the predominant and concluding key is D major. In 1788, Haydn had attended the first Vienna performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. Contemporary accounts posit the opera as having made a great impression on him. In Don Giovanni, the most memorable scene portrays the unrepentant anti-hero being dragged down to the underworld. Here, according to Robbins Landon, the listener hears, "perhaps the first time in music history, the presence of real fear, nay terror".[citation needed] This music is all in D minor. It is easy to imagine that when Haydn, ten years later, wished to evoke this emotion in his music, his ears were still ringing with Giovanni's terrible D-minor fate.[citation needed]

Compositional sections[edit]

The text, slightly altered, is taken from the Latin Mass of the Catholic church. It includes the following sections.

The first movement of the Mass communicates just such an atmosphere of terror and confusion. The text, "Lord, have Mercy; Christ, have mercy," is most frequently set as a pious, even submissive plea, but in this Mass it becomes a nearly profane expostulation, such as one might utter when presented with a disaster of incomprehensible magnitude. Anguished confusion permeates virtually every note of the first "Kyrie" movement.

The movement that follows, the Gloria, is the exact opposite of the first. It's a song of exultant praise, directed to the same creator whose world, in the first movement is so fraught with perils. Haydn's treatment is utterly without irony. The vision of the Gloria is as elemental and complete as the dark vision of the Kyrie. The world may be beset with dangers and terrors, but it is at one and the same time a glorious world of diverse miracles, and the soprano, alto, and chorus compete in the joyful praise. "We praise thee, we magnify thee, we adore thee, we glorify thee..."

Haydn starts the Credo movement with a canon, as the altos and basses repeat exactly the music sung by the sopranos and tenors. The repeating voices in canon are an ingenious way of providing reinforcement for the statement of belief. Then comes the most dramatic section of the Credo. It is introduced by a lovely soprano solo set to the words "et incarnatus est—and he was made incarnate." What follows is the central drama of the New Testament—the idea that God took on human form and lived on earth—the Christmas story and all that follows it.

But because every birth on this earth foretells a death to come, this section also leads through the terrible events of the crucifixion, and the music reflects that agony, as the trumpets and the tympani play echoes of their motifs from the dark Kyrie. In response, in one of the most transcendent moments in the Mass, a trio of soloists assures us that the birth and death were not futile but were in fact for our benefit--"pro nobis, pro nobis, pro nobis," repeated three times, perhaps to invoke the power of the Trinity. This assurance seems to transform the mood from one of agony and despair to one of acceptance. It is an extraordinary moment. The "et resurrexit" is predictably fast paced and joyous and leads the Credo to an almost delirious conclusion, led by glorious writing for the violins, and proceeding to a magnificent "Amen."

In the "Benedictus," Haydn chooses to focus on just part of the text: "In the Name of the Lord." Together, the soprano soloist and chorus imagine for us the sort of Pomp and Circumstance that would surround such a messenger. Near the end, the trumpets and tympani suddenly enter to create extraordinarily grand music, suggesting a magnificent procession. Some people have interpreted this section as a martial tribute to Lord Nelson himself, but others believe the tribute is rather purely religious.

The "Agnus Dei" is a personal address, a prayer, appealing to a personal God through Jesus for a personal blessing--"miserere nobis." Haydn in this section emphasizes the intimacy involved by setting the entire petition for the four soloists, not the chorus.

That movement, and the Mass as a whole ends in a very glad setting of the "famous last words" of the Mass--"Dona nobis pacem—grant us peace." The listener has been transported from the greatest depths of despair in the first movement to a great and certain joy.

Selected discography[edit]


  1. ^ Robbins, H.C. (2000). Haydn: Missa in angustiis ("Nelson Mass") [notes for cd, p. 7] in Willcocks, D. (1962/2000). Haydn, Nelson Mass; Vivaldi, Gloria in D; Handel: Zadok the Priest [recording]. London: Decca.
  2. ^ a b Webster, James and Feder, Georg. "Sacred vocal music" in "Haydn, Joseph." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
  3. ^ McCaldin, Denis (1995). "Haydn's "Nelson" Mass: Its decline and rise." SAMUS: South African journal of musicology/Suid-Afrikaanse tydskrif vir musiekwetenskap, 15: 26.
  4. ^ Hibbert 1994, p. 216
  5. ^ McCaldin (1995). 26.


  • Hibbert, Christopher (1994). Nelson A Personal History. Basic Books. ISBN 0-201-40800-7.
  • McCaldin, Denis (1995). "Haydn's "Nelson" Mass: Its decline and rise." SAMUS: South African journal of musicology/Suid-Afrikaanse tydskrif vir musiekwetenskap, 15: 25–32.
  • Robbins, H.C. (2000). Haydn: Missa in angustiis ("Nelson Mass") [notes for cd, p. 7] in Willcocks, D. (1962/2000). Haydn, Nelson Mass; Vivaldi, Gloria in D; Handel: Zadok the Priest [recording]. London: Decca.
  • Schenbeck, Lawrence. (1985) "Missa in angustiis by Joseph Haydn." Choral journal, 25, no. 9: 19, 25–30.
  • Webster, James and Feder, Georg. "Sacred vocal music" in "Haydn, Joseph." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.

External links[edit]