Haydn and Britten

February 2, 1991, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Te Deum Franz Joseph Haydn
Cantata Misericordium Benjamin Britten
Neil Mackie , Tenor
David Arnold , Baritone
Missa in Angustiis (Lord Nelson Mass) Franz Joseph Haydn
Susan Montgomery , Soprano
Debbie Cree , Mezzo Soprano
Neil Mackie , Tenor
David Arnold , Baritone


It has been a special pleasure over the last five years to introduce Master Chorale audiences to the late Masses of Haydn, works which are both the climax of Haydn's personal achievements and also the model of the late Viennese symphonic Mass. But in some ways the two mature sacred works we present tonight are mildly exceptional. True, both the Te Deum and the Nelson Mass are alive with the verve and optimism of later Haydn, but they also have a ceremonial quality which recalls some of the great Baroque masterpieces. The clues here are the occasion and the unusual (for Haydn) use of three trumpets. Although the Te Deum was written initially for the Empress Marie Therese, both this work and the Mass became strongly associated with the victories of Lord Nelson. (See the accompanying historical notes.) Each has a grandeur which is seldom encountered elsewhere in the master's works, and the Mass, uniquely, is in a minor key. Thus we have a remarkable fusion, in both works, of Haydn's energy and joy - the violin parts require just as much virtuosity and velocity as in any late Haydn symphonic piece - and solemn, god-fearing Baroque splendour.
I urge you, as always, to follow the text and the translation. In this way you will not miss the incidental dramatic touches within the huge symphonic structure, like the wild fanfaring trumpets which announce the victorious Nelson at the words "Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.” In Paukenmesse you heard the fearful trumpets of war add terror to the final prayer of the Mass, but here the trumpets are triumphant, celebrating God and the British navy.
Like two sides of a coin, two great and obsessive themes dominate the music of Benjamin Britten: innocent suffering and human compassion. Britten was a pacifist, and his response to the commission from the International Red Cross was typical: a Latin version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, dramatized, expanded, and stated in a beautifully clear musical form.
A solo quartet of strings is the refrain, providing the recurrent musical theme and also depicting the passage of time between each paragraph of the story; the chorus interprets, becomes involved in, and moralizes on the action, in classical Greek fashion, while harp, piano and tympani add dramatic colorings to the small string orchestra. As always, Britten uses his resources with maximum theatrical effect.
The choral writing ranges from the striking repetitions of the word "beati" (blessed) at the opening and the pliant theme which immediately follows on the word "misericordes" to a fierce declamatory style in the central action of the story.
Both the soloists are fully characterized musically - they are real people, not simply types in a stylized parable. The Samaritan (tenor), for example, first reveals his compassion by his distress for the victim, recalling the "misericordium" theme of the opening. Later his concern bursts out in bustling domestic activity: charity must be practical.
The final choral sections point the parable's moral unmistakably in music which powerfully recalls the opening. But this time the "blessed" chords announce an urgent authoritative message - "Go thou and do likewise" - before the music fades in a sort of question mark.
Joseph Haydn reached the culmination of his symphonic output with the production of his second set of Salomon Symphonies in 1794-95, of which 102 and 104 mark the summit. The famed Trumpet Concerto in E flat and the Quartets of Opera 76 and 77 attest to his continuing interest in the composition of instrumental music. However, upon his return to Eisenstadt he completed six Masses (1796-1802) which incorporated his symphonic principles now consummately applied to chorus, soloists and orchestra.
Likewise in 1799 he produced his majestic Te Deum in C for the Empress Maria Theresa.
The Mass in D (Nelson Mass) was composed during July-August, 1798, the third of those Masses composed to celebrate the birthday of Princess Ermenegilda Esterhazy, wife of Haydn's patron. His title for the Mass was "in Angustiis (in time of troubles)." Even from Haydn's day the work was called the Nelson Mass, because it was heard by Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton at Eisenstadt in 1800 as they were returning to England after Nelson's great victory over the French fleet at Abukir Bay in Egypt in 1798. It should likewise be noted that the Te Deum found inspiration in the news of this victory.
Like Haydn's earlier Mass in Time of War, the Nelson Mass was composed during the height of the Napoleonic "troubles" and exhibits martial aspects particularly in the famed trumpet fanfare of the Benedictus;. Indeed Haydn himself recounted in 1800 that as he was actually writing this Benedictus; he received news that a courier had arrived bearing news of the victory. From that moment on he could not banish from his imagination the image of the trumpet-blowing messenger. And since the idea of his Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord) was so clearly related to this he therefore added striking trumpet parts.
All of Haydn's great Masses vary in their instrumentation. The Nelson Mass is unique among them in that it is scored for three high trumpets in D, timpani, strings and organ. Haydn permitted later woodwind parts to replace the role of the organ. Robbins Landon notes that the solemn key of D Minor, and the acid biting texture of the trumpets all lend a special kind of asperity and majesty to the music, which has an almost Baroque feel to it. "In his Nelson Mass," he continues, "Haydn can arguably be said to have produced his greatest work. Certainly for majesty, power, exuberant exaltation, lyrical contemplation, and the appropriate handling of the text few compositions of this genre can surpass it."
Haydn produced his Te Deum in C for the Empress Maria Theresa, wife of the Emperor Francis I, an admirer of his. His jealous patron Prince Esterhazy did not receive kindly the news that he had produced a large-scale Te Deum for the Empress, though it would appear that Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton in their visit to Eisenstadt were the first to hear the work sometime in September, 1800. The Te Deum Haydn conceived on a large scale, to be executed with large forces. It is a grandiose work, one of Haydn's sublimest creations. As in several of his choral works, the themes of the Te Deum find origin in those of Gregorian Chant, which Haydn throughout his life revered.
As Robbins Landon remarks "Haydn's setting of the great Te Deum is one of the crowning efforts of his old age, and it is gratifying to think that after the works epochal relaunching by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1958 and its publication the year after, this sublime Te Deum has now uplifted thousands of hearts after being almost forgotten in the first part of the twentieth century."
By the time of its composition, the orchestral forces of the Esterhazy establishment in 1800 had been greatly augmented, hence the Te Deum is scored for a full contemporary symphonic orchestra and chorus without soloists
Benjamin Britten's Cantata Misericordium, the product of his fiftieth year, deals with a dramatic presentation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It followed the War Requiem by almost a year after that work's first performance, and in character is considerably removed from it in the paucity of its forces and in its generally subdued tone.
Completed on May 25, 1963, the published score's cover page notes that the Cantata was composed for and first performed at the solemn ceremony on the Commemoration day of the Centenary of the Red Cross, September 1, 1963 at 11:00 a.m. in the Grand Theater of Geneva. Ernest Ansermet led the Orchestra de Ia Suisse Romande, featuring Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as soloists and the chorus "Le Motet de Geneve." The Cantata utilizes sparse orchestral forces comprising piano, harp, timpani, string quartet and string orchestra.
The Latin text produced by Patrick Wilkinson has as its central theme the lesson of the noted Parable: "Who is my neighbor?" Britten chooses in his setting not to emphasize the violence of the attack on the traveler, but rather the Parable's compassionate aspects and this in his most tender style. Eric Roseberry in his notes to the Britten recording of the Cantata observes that the 20 minute work is framed by a prologue and an epilogue painting the moral in terms sufficiently general to avoid a specifically Christian interpretation.
Michael Kennedy, Britten's eminent biographer, provides the best brief summary of the Cantata 's musical aspects. “... the short sections are linked by a polyphonic ritornello heard at the outset . . . from the string quartet and later accompanying the choir's first singing of the word 'misericordes' (merciful). It contrasts with the more robust and declamatory 'Beati' with which the choir makes their entry. Alternation of the two motifs continue throughout the prologue until the parable begins. (After the traveler) has been left robbed and wounded by the wayside, the 'passing by' of the priest and the Levite are recounted by the chorus. The string quartet separates each encounter; before the third encounter its rhythm is broken up to symbolize abandonment of hope and the traveler’s cry for help is now short and feeble, to be answered by tremulant strings and the tenor's merciful arioso as the Samaritan succours the traveler and takes him to the inn. The War Requiem is inescapably recalled to mind as the Samaritan sings 'Dormi nunc, amice (Sleep now my friend)' over the gentle accompaniment of the prominent harp. The chorus's moral-drawing epilogue recalls the opening chorus. All points, moral and musical, have been made with concentrated lyricism.”

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