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8.572126 - HAYDN, J.: Masses, Vol. 6 - Masses Nos. 2, "Missa brevis" and 14, "Harmoniemesse" (Trinity Choir, Rebel Baroque Orchestra, Burdick, Glover)
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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 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.

Missa brevis in F major (Hob.XXII:1; 1749)

In his personal catalogue, Haydn wrote of the Missa brevis in F a due soprani, ‘This was the first Mass that Herr Haydn wrote while still a student’9. While there is some disagreement about the statement’s truth, due to the existence of an earlier Mass in G that is probably spurious, the Missa brevis is indeed the composer’s earliest authenticated work. Written shortly before Haydn’s departure from St Stephen’s, the Mass features only two solo parts; both are for soprano—an unusual arrangement that has given rise to the theory that Haydn wrote the work as a vehicle for himself and his brother Michael. In many respects, the piece is a traditional missa brevis (‘short Mass’): each part of the Ordinary corresponds to a single movement; Haydn sets several lines of text simultaneously in the Gloria and Credo, thereby moving rapidly through the lengthy sections; and the music of the Kyrie is repeated at the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ in accordance with standard practice. Other aspects of the work are less conventional, however. Haydn uses the solo sopranos in unorthodox ways throughout the Mass, at times treating them almost as instrumental soloists. In the Kyrie, they embellish the choral statements as would instrumentalists in a Baroque concerto, while their surprising entrance at the end of the Gloria, an otherwise choral movement, sounds almost like a trumpet fanfare. After rediscovering the work almost fifty years later, Haydn later told Dies that he particularly admired ‘the melody and a certain youthful fire’10.

Missa, ‘Harmoniemesse’ in B flat major (Hob.XXII:14; 1802)

At the opposite end of Haydn’s career stands his last major composition: the Harmoniemesse, on which the composer reported ‘labouring wearily’ between June and August of 1802 in order to complete the work before the Princess’s nameday festivities on 8 September. According to the report of the Austrian ambassador to Britain Count Louis Starhemberg, the 1802 celebration was particularly festive, consisting of a church service (in which Haydn himself directed the music), an elegant dinner and ball that continued until the early hours of the morning, a hunt the following morning, and a concert featuring excerpts from the Harmoniemesse. After completing the Mass, Haydn complained increasingly of fatigue, lack of concentration, and depression, and ultimately submitted his resignation to the Esterházy family towards the end of 1804. Although he lived until 1809, the Harmoniemesse was to be not only his final Mass setting but his last major composition.

With a full Harmonie, or wind band, at his disposal, Haydn composed the Mass for a full complement of winds and brass (including flute and horn) in addition to strings, choir and vocal soloists. The use of a full wind section was still relatively novel in the early nineteenth century, thus giving rise to the work’s nickname, Harmoniemesse. The impact of the expanded palette of instrumental colour is felt immediately in the Kyrie’s slow instrumental introduction, from which the rest of the section gradually proceeds. Even the ‘Christe eleison’, usually set forth as a distinct section, is carefully integrated into the movement’s overall framework. This deliberate, almost organic approach contrasts strikingly with sections that are more extrovert and intense in character, setting up a dichotomy not unlike that in the Nelsonmesse. Haydn continues to exploit these dramatic extremes throughout the Harmoniemesse. In the Gloria, ‘Et incarnatus est’ unfolds in a reverent manner similar to that of the Kyrie, establishing a feeling of timelessness that is obliterated in the ensuing ‘Et resurrexit’. The Sanctus begins in the same monumental vein, alternating between the quartet of soloists and full choir before the unexpected interruption at ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. The opening of the Benedictus is almost scherzo-like in character, its nervous energy standing in sharp distinction to the calm of the Sanctus—a contrast that the reprise of music from the end of the Sanctus makes even more clear. Particularly shocking is the transition from the first part of the Agnus Dei to ‘Dona nobis pacem’, in which a sudden trumpet fanfare completely explodes the placid choral landscape that has been established. The most striking contrast, however, is between the work and its creator. In the face of the Harmoniemesse’s expressive intensity, it is nearly impossible to imagine that Haydn himself was at the end of his compositional career.

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, I, 145
10 Heartz, 241

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