Mozart and Haydn Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concert on October 15, 2014 – Mozart and Haydn – at Koerner Hall.  Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

F.J. Haydn: Missa in Angustiis (Lord Nelson Mass), Hob. XXII:11

After almost thirty years as Kapellmeister to the court of Esterháza, Joseph Haydn was let go in 1790 becoming a very successful freelance composer. The Esterházys awarded him a pension, allowing for a comfortable retirement, and stipulated that Haydn’s one remaining task be to compose and direct a new mass once a year to honour the name-day of Princess Marie Esterházy. The last six masses by Haydn were all for this purpose, the most famous being the so-called “Lord Nelson” Mass.

Composed over a mere fifty-three days in the summer of 1798 and premiered that September, Haydn catalogued the mass “‘Missa in Angustiis” or Mass in Time of Trouble. At the time, Napoleon Bonaparte and his French armies occupied much of Austria, and all of Europe was in peril. This despair and fear can be heard in the dark, foreboding Kyrie, as well as in parts of the Credo and Sanctus. But during the time that Haydn was composing the Mass, Napoleon was surprisingly defeated in the Battle of the Nile by the British, led by Admiral Horatio Nelson. It is unlikely that Haydn could have known of this victory, although after his death a strategic chart of the British and French fleets in the battle was found among his papers. But legends develop quickly and many began to associate the ringing trumpet calls of the Benedictus with Nelson’s victory. By the time of Nelson’s 1805 triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar, resulting in his death, the mass had been dubbed, Lord Nelson.

In 1800, Lord Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton had paid a visit to Haydn when the Mass may have been performed. The story goes that Nelson asked Haydn for the pen with which he had composed the work. Haydn obliged, and in return Nelson awarded the flattered composer his valuable gold watch.

Written during a time of war and strife, the Lord Nelson Mass has earned universal timeliness and appeal because its message transports us from fear and confusion to the hopeful return of peace and happiness.

W. A. Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626

During the last year of his life Mozart was commissioned, somewhat mysteriously, for a Requiem Mass. The fee was substantial and Mozart was paid half upfront, with the remaining half to be paid on delivery of the mass. Mozart set to work but died Dec. 5, 1791 leaving the Requiem incomplete. His wife Constanze, in dire need of the remaining half of the commission fee, turned to several Viennese composers to complete the Requiem. Some actually started, but eventually they all turned her down. She finally asked Franz Süssmayr (1766–1803), a student of Mozart’s who had spent long hours with the dying Mozart discussing the work and hearing the plans. Süssmayr agreed, completed the Requiem and Constanze received the well-needed cash. The big question has always been – how much of the Requiem was actually composed by Mozart?

When Mozart died, the Introit and Kyrie of the Requiem were almost finished. There were vocal parts and the bass line for most of the Sequence and Offertory, but without the instrumental parts. And the Mozart pen stopped eight bars into the Lacrimosa. So to complete the work, Süssmayr had to add orchestral parts for most of the Sequence and Offertory. The Lacrimosa had to be finished and the work needed the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio sections.

Until the late 20th century, the Süssmayr completion was the version usually performed. But doubts as to the quality of Süssmayr’s work began to crop up, so several musicologists took to revising and completing their own versions of the Requiem, pushing aside the Süssmayr. Of these newer completions, the most popular was by Robert Levin, a talented U.S. pianist and musicologist. But now in the 21st century, the Süssmayr has regained its popularity, over-taken its competitors and is again the version used most often. Funny how tastes change! The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performs the Süssmayr version tonight.

If Mozart had lived to complete the Requiem, it would undoubtedly be different than any of the revisions and completions. But the popularity and success of the work today still stem from Mozart’s genius in combining the Baroque church style and the 18th century Italian operatic style with Masonic influences. Mozart was decades ahead and the Requiem is a Romantic work that deals with the awe and mystery of the questions surrounding life and death. Maybe Beethoven said it best when he purportedly remarked, “If Mozart did not write the music, then the man who wrote it was a Mozart.”

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, reviewer, lecturer, concert host and musical tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.