Skip to page content

The homely characterization of one of the greatest musicians in history as “Papa Haydn” has tended to detract somewhat from the stature of the man as a magistral creative artist. Said Mozart: “He alone has the secret of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.”

Making one smile is only one of Haydn’s many secrets, but it is a pervading one that infiltrated even his most serious works, including his religious compositions. “At the thought of God,” Haydn said, “my heart leaps for joy and I cannot help my music doing the same.”

Haydn wrote religious works throughout his career; not unexpectedly, the greatest of them occupied him after he had somewhat retired from the world. Before ending his second and final visit to London in 1795, Haydn had news that his new princely employer, Nikolaus II, was reorganizing the court orchestra that his predecessor had disbanded in 1790. Prince Nikolaus II’s demands for new music turned out to be minimal; Haydn was free to write what he wanted, except that he had to compose one new mass every year for the name day (September 8) of the Princess Josepha Maria, Nikolaus’ wife. This D-minor Mass is the third of the six masses Haydn produced between 1796 and 1802.

Headed simply Missa in the autograph score, this work was entered by Haydn in his catalogue as Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Time of Anguish). The parenthetical title of “Nelson” Mass, by which the composition is now generally known, seems to have come about as the result of a visit by the British admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson, to Esterházy in the summer of 1800, and not, as was theorized, by Nelson’s victory over the French fleet in Egypt in August 1798.

Title aside, the “Nelson” Mass contains all that is best in Haydn, from the supremely confident application of symphonic principles to a vocal form; to stirring Handelian choruses; to moving introspections and elevated expressiveness; and yes, even to the leaps of joy Haydn’s heart could not help but take. — Orrin Howard