A Mass of Angst?

It was really good last night to be shepherded by Carlos through to the end of the Nelson Mass.  However much we may rehearse or listen to recordings at home, there is nothing like singing it at rehearsal, under Carlos’ guidance, to really begin to understand the music.

And what music it is!  As Carlos said last night, it is beautifully crafted, very singable and tuneful.  That does not mean to say that it is easy, and the Sopranos might have a quibble or two about the number of top As and top B flats which are required of them.

But these are details.  We always think of Haydn as composing bright, sunny music, most often in bright, sunny major keys.  He is affectionately known as “Poppa Haydn”, reflecting a warm, friendly personality.

The Nelson Mass is something different.  Its sub-title gives the first indication:  Missa in Angustiis.  I can’t be sure, but I reckon there is a connection between our word angst and the Latin angustiis.  Haydn must have been going through considerable angst at the time.  Napoleon, then at the height of his powers, was expected to invade Austria at any time.  Church authorities had severely restricted the use of music in regular services.  Haydn’s employer had been forced to sack several members of his court orchestra for a combination of political and financial reasons.

Haydn’s world was falling apart around him, as was that of his employer and potentially the whole of his beloved homeland, Austria.  His response in the Nelson Mass is remarkable.  The music is so different to what we expect.  Can you think of another Mass where we almost shout the invocation “Kyrie eleison”- “Lord have mercy”?  or where “Donna nobis pacem”-“Lord grant us peace” seems more like an instruction than a request?

And that’s not all. In the Credo, most composers set the words of Christ’s death in a sombre minor key and his resurrection in a bright major key, for obvious reasons.  But in the Nelson Mass,  Haydn reverses the sequence.  Following a gentle G major laying to rest in the tomb, there is a striking B minor sequence to announce the resurrection – most unexpected and most effective as a precursor to D major for the remainder of the Credo.

I like to think that the Nelson Mass shows the true deep inner personality of Haydn.  Yes, a cheerful man in the main, but someone with deeper beliefs, feelings and emotions than he often permitted himself to display.

We are most fortunate to have Carlos conducting us for this work.  He forces us to think about what we are singing, and about how the composer is using music to communicate ideas and feelings. The combination of Haydn and Carlos is indeed compelling.