Austria: Mozart and Haydn

Program Notes by Dennis Keene

  A Masonic lodge meeting of Mozart's day, once thought to portray Mozart's own lodge.   Oil painting (1782), Wienmuseum Vienna.

A Masonic lodge meeting of Mozart's day, once thought to portray Mozart's own lodge. Oil painting (1782), Wienmuseum Vienna.

Works by Mozart

Mozart composed sacred choral and vocal music during every period of his life, from his early years in Salzburg until the very last days of his life in Vienna. We have chosen five varied works for this concert, some iconic, others little known.

Our opening work is the Gloria movement from his Sparrow Mass (so named because of some string ornaments in the Hosanna movements which resemble chirping birds.) Like most of his Salzburg Masses, this one is straightforward and brief. It possesses happy melodies and an absolutely contagious feeling of joy.

We follow that little-known work with one of Mozart’s iconic compositions, the solo cantata Exsultate jubilate. It was written for the world-famous castrato, Venazio Rauzzini, the star of Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla. During Mozart’s time, some of the most celebrated and admired singers of Europe were the castrati, male singers “altered” in their youth who had careers as sopranos. Today this work is regularly sung by virtually every famous lyric or coloratura soprano. The cantata is in four parts: a brilliant opening movement of praise; a recitative in the style you might hear in an opera; a ravishingly beautiful slow movement which ends with an improvised vocal cadenza; and, finally, the famous concluding “Alleluia.”

We are performing Mozart’s Sancta Maria, mater Dei, because it is a lovely piece and almost never heard. It was composed for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which provides an inherent conflict: pieces for feast days are supposed to be brilliant, celebratory; but pieces about the Virgin Mary are normally sweet and pious. Mozart skillfully balances both assignments. The tempo is written as Allegro Moderato (a moderate fast tempo) – so it is not slow, but moves along. At the same time, the melodies Mozart composed are very tender and devotional.

Next, we turn to another of Mozart’s iconic compositions, the motet Ave Verum Corpus. Composed in the last summer of his life, this seemingly simple 46-measure piece is a miracle of art. Transcendent and luminous, it expresses a profundity of emotion few composers could ever achieve. Curiously, many editions of this famous work, even editions published not so long ago, contained all kinds of added crescendi and diminuendi. Mozart, however, simply wrote sotto voce (“under the voice,” i.e. very softly).

We conclude our Mozart tour with the brilliant, joyous Beatus Vir movement from his famous Vesperae solennes de Confessore. It was the last piece Mozart composed for the Salzburg Cathedral before he moved to Vienna. It seems perfectly matched with that huge, light-filled rococo cathedral, with its elaborate, vivacious string parts, and the jubilant dialogue between the solo quartet and chorus.



Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass

When Haydn composed his Nelson Mass (July-August 1798), his friend and much younger colleague, Mozart had been dead for seven years. A young composer named Beethoven was making waves in Vienna. (They had met in 1792 when the 22-year-old German took Haydn out for coffee). And Napoleon was waging war against all of Europe. Two years earlier (in 1796), as the French troops were invading Austria, Haydn wrote his famous Mass in Time of War. Now, as the war with Napoleon continued, he wrote another war Mass which he entitled “Missa in angustiis.” Augustiis means literally “narrow, constricted”. One might call this work the “Mass in Troubled Times,” for the future of Haydn’s Austria was very much uncertain. What he didn’t know was that, as he was writing his Mass, the French fleet was being badly beaten at Abukir by the British Navy – led by Admiral Nelson. Later, when Nelson and Lady Hamilton passed through Austria, the Missa in augustiis was performed again in their honor. It was then that the name “Nelson Mass” was first used. (Haydn and Nelson had great admiration for each other. During this visit Haydn gave the Admiral his pen; whereupon Nelson took off his gold watch, which he had just won at Abukir, and gave it to Haydn.)

Haydn scored his Mass for strings, trumpets, timpani and organ. When the work was published for the first time, some years later, the publishers apparently felt the absence of woodwinds and the presence of the organ part quite strange. It was too stark a sound, the organ part too strident. So they decided to “improve” Haydn’s work. They arranged the organ part for woodwinds and actually rewrote the trumpet parts.

The amazing part of this story is that the work was published and re-published, performed and re-performed only in this arranged version all the way until 1962! The Nelson Mass has always been popular. How remarkable it is that no one performed it as Haydn wrote it until 55 years ago. But it took the world’s foremost Haydn scholar, H. C. Robbins Landon, to publish a new edition based on the authentic Haydn manuscript score and orchestra parts. This is the version we are performing tonight.

The Kyrie begins with ferocious power in the bold key of D Minor. The chorus sings “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) with octave leaps as the trumpets and drums repeat their insistent motif. This Kyrie, and the Benedictus shocked some of the audience of the time; so bold was the effect, so intense the emotion. Some even referred to it as the “Messe Bruyante” (Noisy Mass). Remember, the sudden fortissimo outbursts of Beethoven were yet to come. The middle “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy) section relieves the tension, but not for long. For the final third of the Kyrie Haydn repeats the music of the beginning, but this time augments it with the flamboyant outbursts of a coloratura soprano solo. The movement ends in D Minor with the entire orchestra striking unison D’s for the whole last measure.

Immediately the musical world is changed as Haydn begins the Gloria in the key of D Major, the key usually set aside for ceremonial, festive music. It has become so apparent that keys for Haydn are not merely chosen for reasons of theory or architecture. They seem to represent different worlds for Haydn, and the change from one key to another, a significant journey from one emotional land to another. Thus, in the Nelson Mass different keys appear to represent different concepts: D Minor the “angustiis,” the fear and intense feelings of the war-ridden world (Kyrie and Benedictus) and D Minor’s relative major key, F Major, representing the temporary relief of that condition (Christe eleison and points of the Benedictus); D Major representing ultimate victory and redemption, the key of extroverted optimism and praise (the first and final sections of both the Gloria and Credo, also the Sanctus, Osanna, and final Dona Nobis Pacem); and G Major, a luminous personal world, peaceful and inwardly optimistic, a key reserved for certain texts dealing with Jesus Christ (Et incarnatus est, Agnus Dei). Thus when Haydn goes from the D Minor of the Kyrie to the D Major of the Gloria, it is not merely from “sad” to “happy”; it is quite a bit more profound than that.

In the first section of the Gloria the solo quartet and chorus find many ways to sing praise, and, at one point, on the phrase “glorificamus te” (we glorify you), the sopranos soar up to a high B natural. A good example of a change of worlds occurs on the first note of the Qui tollis, a fortissimo B-flat in the orchestra – a most abrupt and unexpected change. The bass solo and chorus ask for mercy. The optimism of the first section returns in the Quoniam. This section begins with the same musical material that started the Gloria, and ends with a terrifically exciting choral fugue.

The Credo is also in three large parts. The first begins Allegro con spirito, the chorus singing in canon while the orchestra plays a vigorous part which increases the animation as the movement progresses. The central part, Et incarnatus est, is one of the most ravishing moments in all of Haydn’s music. When the crucifixion text is first sung (by the chorus) it is in the expected minor. But as the alto soloist thinks on the love of this sacrifice, she sings “pro nobis” ([crucified] for us) three times. Haydn sets these words in his special luminous key of G Major. When we perform the final section of the Credo (“Et ressurexit,”) pay particular attention to the word-setting, especially that of the soprano when she sings “Et vitam venture saeculi’ (…”and I believe in the life of the word to come”). It sounds like a heavenly mist that rises out of the heaviness of the preceding word, “mortuorum” (death).

The Sanctus begins rather solemnly, as if in awe of the divinity. At the words “Pleni sunt coeli” (Heaven and earth are full of your glory), it suddenly becomes an extroverted hymn of praise. The following Benedictus is one of the most remarkable settings of that text ever composed. In his late masses Haydn went completely against tradition in his settings of the text “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”. Most composers wrote calm, pastoral music. Under Haydn, however, these settings of the Benedictus are highly dramatic movements, often showing the conflicts of the various emotional aspects of each entire Mass. The listener will hear sudden mood shifts from war-like to elegant, from introspection to the remarkable climax where the trumpets and timpani play militaristic fanfares.

The Agnus Dei begins in Haydn’s special G Major key. As the alto soloist asks the Lamb of God for mercy, she is serene and sure of his response. Not so the soprano soloist, she interrupts. She and the other members of the quartet are still uncertain. And even though they end peacefully on an F# Major chord, the peace is not settled, for this F# Major chord has the normal musical expectation of resolving to B Minor, not an optimistic resolution. But if there were ever any doubts as to the final victory, Haydn dashes them with but one beat of Dona Nobis Pacem. From the first note (in D Major, not the expected B Minor) to the last, we are in a world of overwhelming joy and celebration. The conflicts and doubts are all past. The heavens open as Haydn’s great music soars upwards.