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HAYDN’S NELSON MASS – A CLASSIC CASE OF ‘BIG IS BEAUTIFUL

Born in Austria in 1732, Franz Joseph Haydn was one of the giants of the Classical period in music composition. He was a friend and mentor to Mozart, and a tutor to Beethoven. He was highly significant in the development of chamber music, in particular the string quartet and piano trio. His contributions to musical form have led him to be called "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet".

Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterházy family in Eisenstadt, Austria. Until the later part of his life, this isolated him from other composers and trends in music so that he was, as he put it, "forced to become original". In spite of this, Haydn’s music circulated widely, and for much of his career he was the most celebrated composer in Europe.

He was incredibly prolific, and over the course of 40 years or so, he composed more than 100 symphonies, over 80 string quartets, nearly 30 concertos for various instruments, around 40 masses and other sacred works, and many, many more.


James Webster is a musicologist who specialises in the music of Haydn and other composers of the classical period. He summarizes Haydn's role in the history of classical music thus:

"He excelled in every musical genre. ... He is familiarly known as the 'father of the symphony' and could with greater justice be thus regarded for the string quartet; no other composer approaches his combination of productivity, quality and historical importance in these genres."

Haydn’s ‘contribution’ to Oriana’s upcoming concert series is his Missa in Angustiis (Mass for troubled times), known colloquially as the Nelson Mass. Although it does not fall into either of the two genres for which Haydn is best known, it is nevertheless a highly significant work. In fact, H. C. Robbins, author of what is probably the definitive biography of Haydn, wrote that the Nelson Mass is arguably his greatest single composition.

It was through the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, by Admiral Nelson’s navy, that the Missa in Angustiis acquired its nickname of ‘Nelson’. Legend has it that Haydn learned of the British victory on or soon after the day on which the Missa in Angustiis had its premiere performance, and the coincidence led to the work gradually came to be known as the Nelson Mass.

It is a big work, with a big sound. And yet, it is not in any way bombastic or overbearing. Throughout the six movements – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei – there is much variation in mood, emotion and style. Within the one movement, for example in the Gloria and the Credo, one can find contrasts between exuberant praise and quiet meditation. Haydn also uses transitions from 4/4 to 3/4 time to bring about a change in mood. Its original title was a Mass for Troubled Times, but when one listens to it with the knowledge that Austria’s enemy had just been defeated, it is possible to feel the hope that Haydn wished to give to his country men and women through this wonderful music.

If you love sacred choral music performed by a highly accomplished choir such as Oriana, and accompanied by an orchestral ensemble as brilliant as the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, then you are certain to have a most enjoyable, uplifting experience this coming July.




16th July, 2pm St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane 17th July, 2pm Stella Maris Catholic Primary School, Maroochydore Secure your seats by visiting oriana.org.au

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