Haydn - Nelson Mass: How Haydn’s greatest work cemented his friendship with a British hero

Tonight Jane Jones presents a superb performance of a work originally called the 'Mass for Troubled Times'. Haydn’s mighty choral work is now forever associated with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory over Napoleon.

The Nelson Mass according to Joseph Haydn’s biographer is arguably the composer’s “greatest single composition”.  It is a work that was written at a time of intense fear for the future of Austria, whose citizens were not in the best of spirits. In 1797-1798 Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.

The prevailing political and financial instability even impacted the musical forces that Haydn had at his disposal in the Esterhazy court where he spent some 30 years of his career. Haydn’s patrons had dismissed their wind players and the composer was left with a mere string ensemble.

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Haydn was also feeling the effects of only recently completing and premièring The Creation. Exhausted, he was confined by his doctor to his room. But a new work was required in a short period of time to mark the saint’s name day of the Esterhazy princess.

No wonder then that Haydn called his latest work the Missa in Angustiis or Mass for Troubled Times. As the public mood approached the point of terror, Haydn wrote an opening movement in D minor, a key that he had loved ever since hearing it used to evoke doom in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. With his limited ensemble, bolstered by a few hired trumpets and timpani, Haydn created a stark and powerful sound world.

What he didn’t know however as he penned the work was that the British had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat in the Battle of the Nile. As the news reverberated around the world, Nelson was heralded as the 'saviour of Europe'. It’s possible that reports of his victory may even have reached Haydn and his audience on the day of the Mass’s first performance in September 1798.

Perhaps because of this coincidence, the Mass gradually acquired the name which it still carries today. The title however became firmly fixed when in 1800, Nelson himself visited the Esterhazy court, accompanied by his mistress, Lady Hamilton, where they met the composer.

It is very probable that the Mass was performed to honour Nelson during his visit, along with a brief cantata, Lines from the Battle of the Nile, which Haydn composed for Lady Hamilton. Nelson and Haydn reportedly became friends; some accounts say that the heroic Admiral gave Haydn a gold watch in exchange for the pen that he had used to compose Lady Hamilton's cantata.

Napoleon’s defeat changed the way that the Mass was heard from then on. The menacing opening leading into the drama that followed became a depiction of danger and agitation supplanted by triumphant victory.