Haydn Seek: Five Facts You May Not Know About the Lord Nelson Mass
1. No one knows exactly when the nickname “Lord Nelson” became attached to Joseph Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (“mass in troubled times”). Haydn, along with the rest of Europe, was on tenterhooks wondering where Napoleon would strike next. But on August 1, 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson soundly defeated Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile. Word soon traveled to Vienna where Haydn’s mass was first performed on September 15, just as audiences learned of Nelson’s victory. In 1800 Lord Nelson himself visited the Palais Esterházy, met the composer, and almost certainly heard the piece performed. The appellation stuck!
2. Haydn’s employer, Nikolaus II, Prince of Esterházy, dismissed his wind and horn players for financial reasons shortly before Haydn began work on his new mass. Haydn was left with an orchestra composed of strings, trumpets, timpani, and organ (which the composer himself played at the premiere). This original orchestration, which audiences will hear in City Choir’s performance on November 10, highlights the dark and ominous beginning of the piece in D minor, and the glorious triumph of the ending in D major; the martial quality of the trumpets and timpani also buttress the sense of a military theme, reinforcing the nickname “Lord Nelson.”
3. Despite suffering from severe exhaustion following the premiere of his great oratorio The Creation, Haydn wrote his Missa in Angustiis in a little over a month during the summer of 1798. Perhaps his fatigue and tight schedule explain how the famous tune from The Creation’s “Die Himmel erzälen” (“the heavens are telling”) ended up recycled in the “Gloria” of the Lord Nelson Mass.
4. Napoleon apparently didn’t bear grudges. While Haydn lay dying in May 1809, Napoleon’s forces invaded Vienna. The composer was in no danger from Napoleon, however: Haydn’s fame was so great that the emperor posted an honor guard outside of the composer’s house. Haydn remained inside the house, protected by the guard, until his death on May 31.
5. Maestro Robert Shafer conducted his first performance of the Lord Nelson Mass with a broken leg! In his words, “It was 1974, and I was scheduled to lead my first Lord Nelson Mass with the St. Matthew’s Cathedral choir at the Kennedy Center. The day before the concert I was up on a rickety ladder cleaning my second story windows when the ladder flew out from under me. I plummeted to the ground and barely missed the whirring blades of the A/C unit just below. So, when it came time for the performance, I was in a cast up to my knee and could barely balance on the podium. But that was much less troublesome than the fear that the choir would miss the tempo change in the ‘Credo’…”