Program Notes: Handel and Haydn, February 2019

The conductor speaks about the works
to be performed at Handel and Haydn, February 27, 2019 at St. Andrew’s Church

For many of us it may come as a surprise to know that towards the end of his long and productive life Franz Joseph Haydn created a significant body of sacred music. We tend to think of him as a composer of brilliant symphonies (isn’t one of his monikers “father of the symphony”?), string quartets and piano music. In actual fact, in his position as Kapellmeister at the court of the immensely wealthy Esterhazy family, Haydn was expected to provide music for the worship services, but a series of decrees by the Austrian emperor Joseph II in the 1780’s forbade most elaborate orchestral sacred music. (Joseph felt that Austrian church music had grown too superficially pompous.) Consequently, in the 1780’s Haydn concentrated on symphonic and chamber music, writing little sacred music.

But with the death of Joseph in 1790, the strictures on church music relaxed, and the Esterhazy court ordered new mass settings from their star composer. These masses were celebrated especially on the name day of the Princess Maria Josepha. Haydn wrote six masses for these occasions, and together with his late oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, they constitute some of his supreme creative achievements, especially in choral music.

The Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war) is so called because it was written in 1796-97 as Napoleon’s forces were advancing towards Vienna. In German-speaking countries it is often referred to as the Paukenmesse (Timpani Mass): the timpani does play a significant part in the mass, especially in the Agnus Dei where Haydn uses a brilliant drum solo to heighten the intensity of the movement’s prayer for mercy and peace.

The mass has many extraordinary touches. The overall feel is optimistic and confident, appropriate to the basic key of C major, but the beautiful cello and bass singer duet at the Qui tollis in the “Gloria”, the deeply moving Et incarnatus est in the “Credo” and the gorgeous harmonic colouring at so many moments mark this mass as the work of a great composer working at the height of his powers.

We have added a couple of short motets to the sequence of the mass movements. In a service of worship, for which Haydn’s masses were all written, one does not experience the music in an unbroken sequence as we often do in concert. While not pretending to create a service of worship, we found it interesting to add these motets to give a better sense of the variety of styles one might hear with Haydn’s mass. And what better composers to draw on than Haydn’s younger brother, Johann Michael, himself a very accomplished composer, and Haydn’s dear friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had died far too young, roughly five years before Haydn composed the Mass in time of war.

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Handel’s famous Coronation Anthems were first heard in Westminster Abbey, October 11, 1727, at the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline of England. It seems that the premiere was not a perfect performance: one surviving printed order of service has penciled notes in it, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and beside The King shall rejoice, he says “The Anthem in Confusion: All irregular in the Music”. Part of the musical confusion may have come from the fact that it seems there were two slightly different running orders in circulation, and the performers may have been unclear about what piece came where. Another factor was surely the huge number of performers – one account claims an orchestra of 160 players! – who must have had trouble hearing each other in an acoustic like Westminster Abbey.

Whatever the truth about the first performance’s togetherness, the anthems have achieved justified renown. Zadok the priest has been performed at every British coronation since George II’s, and all of the works show Handel at his most brilliant. The gentler movements (like much of My heart is inditing which was sung during Queen Caroline’s coronation) are charming and exquisitely graceful, while in creating a celebratory and festive mood, Handel is unsurpassed.

David Fallis
TMC Interim Conductor and Artistic Advisor

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Categories: 2018-2019 Season and Program Notes.