Josef Haydn (1732-1809)

Josef Haydn is a paradoxical figure for us, a truly innovative composer who maintained what we might see as an archaic notion of loyalty and service, remaining in the employ of four different Prince Esterhazys for 48 years! Yet it was the life that Haydn carefully chose and one which offered him a great many advantages. Nor should it obscure his towering genius. It was Haydn who developed the modern symphony from the genial but unsubstantial three-movement style galant. It was Haydn who invented the string quartet. When the impresario Johann Peter Salomon attempted to recruit both Haydn and Mozart to London in 1790, it was the sixty-year old Haydn who accepted the offer and went on to compose some of his greatest works during his six years in London. It was the seventy-year old Haydn who revived an art form dormant since the days of Handel, the oratorio, and created one of the most stunningly original works in The Creation. And it was Haydn more than anyone else who developed the concert mass as a musical form.

Haydn’s musical career began as a boy soprano at the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Vienna. He took the opportunity to learn violin and keyboard as well as singing, but the tenure of a boy soprano is necessarily limited and he found himself at 17 on the streets of Vienna with no job, no lodging and no prospects. He barely supported himself by giving lessons, playing organ at one church and singing as tenor soloist at another and performing with the many impromptu musical ensembles which were a feature of musical life in Vienna. His musicianship progressed well enough that he made important contacts which furthered his career: imperial court poet Pietro Metastasio, who engaged him as a clavier teacher; opera composer Nicolo Porpora, who tutored him in music theory; and the Dowager Princess Esterhazy, who persuaded her son to hire Haydn as kapellmeister.

Prince Nicolas I Esterhazy was imperious, as anyone who styled himself Il Magnifico might be expected to be, but he respected Haydn and fully appreciated Haydn’s musical genius. He entertained lavishly and lost no opportunity to showcase his increasingly famous kapellmeister. Although Haydn’s contract called for his compositions to belong exclusively to the prince, he was allowed to publish freely and his music became so popular abroad that unscrupulous publishers would often affix Haydn’s name to music of lesser composers to satisfy the demand. In return Haydn was made an Officer of the House of one of the most powerful families in the Empire, and was rather well remunerated. (And as an Officer of the House he was required to wear a uniform, something which did not bother Haydn in the least. He even bragged about how much money he was able to save from his clothing allowance!) There was a constant demand for his music and a superb orchestra to perform it. He was able to gather musicians together on an impromptu basis to try out new ideas. Secure in his position, Haydn was insulated from the vagaries of the imperial court and the conservatism of the Viennese musical community, and he was spared the relentless self-promotion in which Mozart and Beethoven were forced to engage in order to further their careers.

Haydn’s last six masses were written annually for the name day celebrations of the wife of Prince Nicolas II, Haydn’s fourth and last Esterhazy. The Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War) was composed in 1796. The subtitle Paukenmesse (Kettledrum Mass) refers to the prominent role of that instrument, especially in unexpected parts like the Agnus Dei. The Missa in tempore belli belongs to that same expansive compositional period as his late symphonies and The Creation, and it is truly symphonic in concept and scale. As mass settings became increasingly elaborate the musical form became increasingly disconnected from the underlying liturgy. Haydn himself had been a major contributor to this trend. There had been a number of attempts to scale back the musical mass, but when Emperor Joseph II put strict limitations on the use of instruments in a mass in the early 1780s, Haydn’s response was to stop writing masses. Haydn was clearly interested in something more than merely setting the text of the mass.

The Missa in tempore belli opens like a symphony, with a slow introduction in the Kyrie (and the first appearance of the tympani) before moving on to the main theme. The music does not reflect the three-part structure of the Kyrie text; Haydn disposes of the second line, “Christe eleison”, in a mere four measures. The Gloria is divided into three parts, allegro-adagio-allegro, like a miniature Italian symphony. The middle section features a beautifully lyric cello line. The Credo is divided into sections that generally reflect the text, but again Haydn is more concerned with the larger musical structure. At the opening, as each voice part enters, it takes a different line of text. Haydn introduces a truncated fugue at the last line, but rather than continue the fugue to the end as might be expected, he instead constructs an elaborate coda with the quartet of soloists and the chorus alternating in an antiphonal manner.

The Sanctus and Agnus Dei contain the most strikingly unusual music of this mass. The Sanctus opens slowly, but builds to a rather ominous forte on the text “pleni sunt coeli” before moving to a brief but more genial Hosanna. The Benedictus is set largely for the solo quartet, with the three lower voices supporting the soprano melody with detached notes like pizzicato strings. The sense of foreboding continues into the Agnus Dei, which opens in a minor key, with the tympani sounding ominously underneath. The music brightens with trumpet fanfares, ending with an unexpectedly dance-like “dona nobis pacem.”

France had been at war with Austria almost continuously since the French Revolution, which had greatly traumatized Austria. Marie Antoinette, who was executed in 1793, was the sister of Emperor Joseph II. Napoleon was commander-in-chief of the French armies and was at that time systematically defeating Austrian armies at every turn and despoiling Austria of its Italian possessions. Haydn composed the Missa in tempore belli in 1796 while Austria was mobilizing its troops again after an ineffectual peace accord, and some people hear the distant thunder of cannons in the persistent tympani of the mass. If the upbeat ending reflects Haydn’s faith in the Austrian army, Haydn was sadly mistaken. The Austrians endured a series of defeats by the French, and Napoleon’s armies occupied Vienna in 1805 and again in 1809. Ironically, the French revered Haydn far more than his native Austrians ever did, and set an honor guard around his house to make sure he was not disturbed.

Program notes by Michael Moore
Written for a program titled “War and Peace”
Performed by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia
May 3, 2003