Music in Troubled Times
The summer of 1798 was a bleak one at the court of Prince Nicholas Esterházy. The year before, the invading French army under Napoleon Bonaparte had pushed north from Italy into Austria and threatened Vienna itself, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Bonaparte’s implacable campaign had eventually forced the Emperor into a treaty that stripped away his territories in present-day Belgium, northern Italy, and southern Germany. Great Britain was left as the last European military power standing against France’s imperial ambitions.
Meanwhile Esterházy’s celebrated court composer, Joseph Haydn, was suffering from exhaustion, his health having broken down after the premiere of his great oratorio The Creation that spring. Under doctor’s orders, he was confined to his rooms at Esterházy Palace to recuperate. It was amid such circumstances of personal and national distress that he turned his attention to his next official duty: composing a Mass to be sung for the name day of Princess Esterházy in September.
Due to wartime economies, the Prince had dismissed the horn and woodwind players from his house orchestra, leaving the composer a limited instrumental palette of strings, trumpets, timpani, and organ to work with. It was not for nothing, however, that Haydn had a reputation as the preeminent composer in Europe. He turned these constraints into assets, using the military associations of the trumpets and drums to give the Mass urgency and drama. He gave the new work the title Missa in angustiis—a Mass for Troubled Times.
The Admired Admiral
Although Haydn could not have known it while he was writing the Mass, a ray of hope was already on the horizon. During the first three days of August, the British Royal Navy, led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, delivered Napoleon a stunning defeat at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson’s success would demoralize France, giving Austria a much-needed respite, and inspired the war-weary continent to renewed resistance.
Battle of the Nile, Augt. 1st 1798: The British fleet bears down on the anchored French.
News of the battle took several weeks to make its way across Europe. Word of Nelson’s victory became breaking news in Austria just about the time Haydn’s new Mass was first performed—possibly even on the same day, as tradition holds. Thus, the Missa in angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times) quickly acquired a second name, the “Nelson Mass,” and it has been known by both titles ever since. Its namesake may have even had a chance to hear the work himself when Lord Nelson paid a visit to the Esterházy palace two years later, forever cementing the association between man and music.
Experience the Nelson Mass on May 20th, 2023
Pacific Chorale concludes its season with Haydn’s masterpiece Missa in Angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times), paired with the West Coast premiere of the choral-orchestral version of groundbreaking composer Florence Price’s newly discovered Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight. These works, although grounded in the new and old worlds respectively and composed more than a century apart, both address the futility of war.
We are thrilled to share a musical program of such significance. Although composed in vastly different times in reaction to vastly different circumstances on separate continents, both works convey powerful and profound messages of humanity that are as relevant today as they were when they were composed.
See the Concert