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8.572121 - HAYDN, J.: Masses, Vol. 1 - Stabat Mater (Trinity Choir, Rebel Baroque Orchestra, Burdick)
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Haydn’s Masses


The ‘father of the symphony’ and master of conversational wit in the string quartet, [Franz] Joseph Haydn is viewed today principally in the light of his instrumental music. According to his nineteenth-century biographer Georg August Griesinger, however, Haydn sometimes wondered if ‘instead of so many quartets, sonatas, and symphonies, he should have written more vocal music’¹. While our modern image of Haydn tends to neglect his vocal compositions, they comprise a large part of his oeuvre—and sacred music in particular played a unique role in his musical development. Haydn’s formative musical experiences were as a choirboy, and his first and last compositions were Mass settings. His Masses were popular during his lifetime, travelling to Catholic countries all along the Danube and making their way into concert halls after Breitkopf and Härtel published seven of them in the first part of the nineteenth century. Sacred music also figured prominently in the composer’s musical philosophy; in Haydn’s mind, compositional process and even artistic inspiration were indelibly linked to spirituality. Griesinger reports: ‘“If, when I am composing, things don’t go quite right,” I heard him say, “I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then the ideas come again.”’² While his instrumental music is clearly inspired, perhaps Haydn’s sacred music—in particular, his twelve complete and authenticated Mass settings—brings us closest to the source of his artistic inspiration.

Haydn showed vocal talent at an early age. Around 1740, the Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s in Vienna, Georg Reutter, recruited him as a choirboy. Haydn received a well-rounded musical education at the church, learning keyboard, violin and composition in addition to singing. In his autobiographical writings, Haydn gives a light-hearted description of his early attempts to compose: ‘I used to think then that it was all right if only the paper were pretty full. Reutter laughed at my immature output, at measures that no throat and no instrument could have executed, and he scolded me for composing in sixteen parts before I understood two-part setting.’³ Reutter’s instruction was predominantly practical in nature; although Haydn remembered only two formal lessons, Griesinger writes that ‘Reutter did encourage him to make whatever variations he liked on the motets and the Salves that he had to sing in church, and this practice early led him to ideas of his own, which Reutter corrected’4. Haydn was forced to leave the school when his voice broke, and at the juncture of this important transition composed his first authenticated Mass, the Missa brevis in F major (1749). After leaving St Stephen’s, Haydn moved into the Michaelerhaus near St Michael’s Cathedral—coincidentally several floors above the famous librettist Metastasio. Through the poet he met the Italian composer Nicola Porpora, whom he credited with teaching him the Italian singing style and manner of composition. As Haydn said in 1766, ‘I wrote diligently, but not entirely correctly, until I had the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the celebrated Porpora’5.

As with most composers of his era, Haydn’s musical output was closely linked to the needs of patrons. In 1761 he was hired as an assistant to the Esterházy court’s aging Kapellmeister Gregor Werner and was put in charge of all musical activities with the exception of sacred music, a responsibility that was added after Werner’s death in 1766. In spite of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy’s reported lack of interest in church music, Haydn composed a number of sacred works between 1766 and 1772 that showcase his facility with the various styles and traditions associated with Austrian church music, including the first Missa Cellensis (or Cäcilienmesse), the Stabat Mater, the Missa in honorem BVM (or Grosse Orgelsolomesse) and the Missa Sancti Nicolai (or Nikolaimesse). After the construction of an Italian opera house and marionette theatre at Eszterháza, the Prince’s new summer residence, Haydn transferred his focus from sacred to secular vocal music, composing only two Mass settings between 1772 and 1782: the Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (or Kleine Orgelsolomesse) in the mid 1770s, and the second Missa Cellensis (the Mariazellermesse) in 1782.

With Prince Nicolaus’s preference for opera, his successor Prince Anton’s complete lack of interest in music, and the emperor Joseph II’s church music reforms of the 1780s all working against him, Haydn didn’t return to the Mass text for fourteen years. After Prince Anton’s death in 1794, however, the new prince, Nicolaus II, called his Kapellmeister back into service. Whereas Prince Nicolaus I had preferred the isolation of Eszterháza in Hungary, Nicolaus II enjoyed the more urban setting of Vienna, and Haydn stayed in the city until his death in 1809 (with the exception of summers, when he travelled with the Esterházy court to Eisenstadt). As part of his duties, Haydn was required to write a Mass each year to celebrate the nameday of Princess Marie Hermenegild, Nicolaus II’s wife, and between 1796 and 1802 Haydn composed six Masses in fulfilment of this responsibility: the Heiligmesse, Paukenmesse, Nelsonmesse, Theresienmesse, Schöpfungsmesse and Harmoniemesse. Haydn’s relationship with Nicolaus II was sometimes rocky, but the Princess was much friendlier than her notoriously difficult husband and reportedly made sure that Haydn’s favourite wine (Málaga) was served to him on a regular basis. While some of Haydn’s contemporaries criticised his late Masses as ‘too cheerful to be sacred’, their exuberance is perhaps due at least in part to his warm relationship with the Princess.

Haydn’s association with the Esterházy family may have provided the impetus for most of his Mass settings, but his ideas about faith in general gave them their unique spirit. Haydn’s biographer Griesinger writes of the composer’s approach to religion: ‘Altogether his devotion was not of a sort which is gloomy and forever in penance but rather cheerful, reconciled, trusting—and in this mould his church music, too, is composed.’6 This optimistic quality caused a certain amount of consternation, particularly in regard to Haydn’s late Masses. According to Haydn’s student Sigismund Neukomm, some maligned the works for their ‘more elegant and less ecclesiastical style’7. Albert Christoph Dies, another contemporary biographer, commented that some listeners found Haydn’s lively tempos and frequent use of waltz-like metres more suitable for the dance hall than the church, while the theatrical arias ‘with their exaggeratedly sensual and superficial performances…can very easily banish devotion but can never awaken it’8. As these criticisms illustrate, listeners had particular expectations when it came to sacred music, and Haydn’s settings depend upon an intimate acquaintance with these established Viennese traditions. At the same time that the works illustrate his fluency with the vernacular of sacred music, however, the Masses display an inspiration and an originality that belong to Haydn alone.

Stabat Mater
(Hob.XXbis; 1767)

Together with the Missa Cellensis, the Stabat Mater (1767) was one of the first sacred works Haydn composed in his new position as Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court. Used in the liturgy on Good Friday and the Feast of the Seven Sorrows, the medieval sequence had previously inspired famous settings by Pergolesi (1732) and Domenico Scarlatti (c. 1715–19), and Haydn may even have sung Palestrina’s Stabat Mater as a choirboy at St Stephen’s. In the chapel at the Esterházy palace, Haydn’s predecessor Werner had established a tradition of performing Grabmusik (‘grave music’) on Good Friday, and Haydn may have written his Stabat Mater in an effort to continue the custom. If the work began as a product of local culture, it quickly transcended these boundaries. Haydn sent the work to Hasse, ‘in case, here and there, I had not expressed adequately words of such great importance, this lack could be rectified by a master so successful in all forms of music’9. Hasse responded—perhaps just as Haydn had hoped—by inviting him to perform the work in Vienna, which he did in March 1768 at the Barmherzige Brüder. The Stabat Mater ultimately became Haydn’s most popular sacred work, circulating widely during his lifetime in Catholic countries such as France, Italy and Spain, and even in Protestant countries such as Holland and North Germany.

As Haydn makes clear, musically expressing the poetry was foremost in his mind while composing the Stabat Mater, and this emphasis is audible throughout the piece. With its first-person description of Mary’s vast range of emotions during the Crucifixion, the poignant text is full of opportunities for bringing feelings to life, and Haydn accomplishes this over the course of the work’s fourteen movements with a wide variety of musical strategies. Over half the movements are slow and nearly half are in minor keys, offering little respite from the unrelentingly doleful mood. Haydn also uses a large-scale tonal scheme that relates to the work’s predominantly melancholy sentiment: after beginning in G minor, he moves deliberately through a number of keys that in many cases are related by a descending third (the same melodic gesture used throughout the piece to depict tears or weeping), finally arriving at the key of G major to evoke ‘Paradisi gloria’ (‘the glory of Paradise’).

Word-painting, or the use of musical gestures to illustrate individual words, also abounds in the piece. One example of this can be heard towards the end of the opening ‘Stabat Mater’, in which gentle rhythmic pulsing sends subtle ripples through the veneer of hushed choral homophony, as if Mary’s soul were being pierced by a sword. Though Haydn respectfully avoids any overt dramatisation, he also uses the soloists and chorus to add subtle characterisation. In many cases, the verses referring directly to Mary’s feelings are presented by the soprano or mezzo-soprano (for example, ‘Oquam tristis’, ‘Quis non posset’ and ‘Fac me vere’), while descriptions of the Crucifixion occur in tenor or bass arias (‘Pro peccatis suae’ and ‘Vidit suum’). The chorus is also used at strategic points in the text: for example, to mark the turn from description of Mary’s plight to the worshipper’s desire to share her emotion at ‘Eja, Mater’. The ensemble comes together in the final section, as powerful choral imitation and virtuosic solo statements vividly conjure up ‘Paradisi gloria’ (‘the glory of Paradise’).

Jennifer More Glagov


¹ James Webster, ‘Haydn’s sacred vocal music and the aesthetics of salvation’ in Haydn Studies, ed. W. Dean Sutcliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 35
² H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn, Chronicle and Works, Vol. IV (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 124
³ Daniel Heartz, Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 237
4 Ibid., 236
5 Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn, ed. David Wyn Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 289
6 Landon, IV, 124
7 Ibid., 125
8 Ibid.
9 Landon, II, 144

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