Last night’s Splendour concert was reviewed by Richard Young of The Beat magazine.
“The Karen Schuessler Singers kicked off their 2009/2010 season on Saturday night with two sublime masses – Franz Josef Haydn’s Mass No. 3 in D, better known as The Lord Nelson Mass and Franz Peter Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G. Presented under the banner title Splendor, both pieces of music were magnificent.”
Can a piece of music change people? Transform them, even? It may seem incongruous to include a video from the rehearsals of the Broadway musical Wicked in a blog post about a Haydn mass… but then again, maybe not.
I first heard the song featured in the above video (For Good) about three years ago. It immediately struck a chord with me, not only because the music was stunningly beautiful, but because the words themselves expressed a sentiment that I believe to be true: That we are intrinsically changed by the people whom we know throughout our the course of our lives.
In the above video (an extra segment included in the DVD of the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical) the musical’s producer, Marc Platt, explains that music has no filter: It “seeps inside you…[and] pierces you…in a deeper way than words alone do.”
If we are capable of hearing, we have all experienced those moments when music has affected us on a deeply emotional – and perhaps even spiritual – level.
What has any of this got to do with Haydn, though?
Haydn wrote his Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times, or Mass in Times of Distress) in the summer of 1798. He was the composer for the court of the Esterházys, a Hungarian noble family, and this particular mass was written for the name day feast (the celebration (or “feast”) of a particular Roman Catholic saint for whom someone is named) of an Esterházy princess.
At this same time in history, Napoleon was attempting to conquer Europe, and the general feeling was one of foreboding and terror as Napoleon won battle after battle, cutting a swathe across the continent. Right before Haydn’s mass was premiered in September of 1798, he and his audience would have heard about British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s stunning victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in Egypt. Perhaps because of this coincidence, the mass later came to be popularly known as the Lord Nelson Mass.
A mass is a choral work originally meant to be sung during the ritual of Christian communion or eucharist, where believers re-enact the last meal of Jesus of Nazareth, when Jesus instructed his followers to eat bread and wine (his “body” and his “blood”) in remembrance of him whenever they gathered together.
The later Christian church formalized the parts of this “holy feast,” writing words that were recited by the priest or sung by the choir: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.
In the Kyrie, believers ask for mercy from God. This part of the sung mass is usually very plaintive, and in the case of Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, in a minor key, which sounds sad and pleading.
In the Gloria, the believers praise God. This part of the mass is usually very joyous.
In the Credo, they recite their beliefs, often in the form of the Nicene creed, a statement of belief that was written by church officials who met at the first ecumenical (multi-denominational) council at the city of Nicea in 325 CE. This section of the mass can often be very long and repetitive, but in the Missa in Angustiis, Haydn uses some musical devices that lighten the mood.
In the Sanctus, the believers again praise God, and in the Benedictus they bless “he who comes in the name of God.”
In the Angus Dei, right before the actual receiving of the bread and the wine, which represent (or stand for) the body and blood of Jesus, believers ask the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world and grant them peace.
But what if you’re not a Christian? How can Haydn’s mass mean anything to you if you don’t believe that Jesus died to pay for your sins, or reconcile you with God?
On a deeper level, humans have been seeking transformation (the radical change of our very essence) for thousands of years. Whether we literally want to change our life situation and circumstances, or change our inner state of being, most of our ritualized behavior (including even contemporary secular (or non-religious) rituals like shaving our body hair, or watching our favorite television show) is designed to transform us – to take us to another place, or make us into something else.
In the Wicked song, For Good, the lead characters talk about how they have been changed because they knew each other.
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good.
What does that mean – to “know” somebody? When we use that phrase, we usually mean that we have spent time with someone, learned about their likes and dislikes, their behavior, or their life circumstances. Did you ever stop to think about how small children learn about their world, though? If you’ve spent any time with a baby, you know that everything eventually makes its way into their mouths. Our lips and tongue have a very high concentration of nerve endings, and the part of the brain that corresponds to our mouths is proportionally much larger than the areas of the brain which correspond to other parts of our body. It’s no surprise that the mouth is the primary way for babies to learn about unknown objects.
In the ritual of Christian communion, believers not only take the bread and wine into their mouths, they literally eat the divine elements. If you can “know” something by putting it into your mouth, does that mean you can then “become” someone by eating them? And what does it mean to eat God, or the creative energy of the universe? What does it mean to eat love itself?
When Haydn wrote Missa in Angustiis, he knew that his audience would understand the yearning for change expressed in the Christian ritual of the mass. Through his art, he hoped to create an environment of sound that would complement the ritual of “becoming one” with love. He wanted his audience to be changed “for good.”
As you listen to each part of the mass, open your ears – and through them, your body – to the gradual progression of transformation. What is happening in your life right now? Do you yearn for change – for something better? Can you imagine what it felt like to live in troubled times? Can you imagine the relief of victory? Of peace?
How does the music in each movement touch you? What journey does the music take you on? Where do you end up when the music is finished? Have you, too, been changed?
It’s Haydn year! To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Franz Josef Haydn’s death, the Karen Schuessler Singers performs Haydn’s greatest choral work, written at the end of his life – the much loved and exuberant Lord Nelson Mass, plus Franz Schubert’s Mass in G, full of graceful melodies and good spirit. With full orchestra featuring Orchestra London players and four outstanding soloists, including soprano Beth Horst and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins.
For date, time and location, check out the Facebook event, here.
Of the many things I love about KSS, one of the best is the wide variety of music that we perform. I’m one of those conductors who, when asked what their favourite piece of music is, will say, “The one I’m working on right now.” At the moment, that one is the Lord Nelson Mass by Franz Joseph Haydn, this being the 200th anniversary of his death in 1809. Because we do such a wide variety of music in KSS and we perform only three subscription concerts a year, we can’t spend a lot of time in any one period or genre, much as we would sometimes like to. Therefore, I don’t often choose the more obscure repertoire that a period has to offer. I generally go for a work that has been performed many times over the centuries. There is usually a good reason why—the work is a stunning example of its kind, the type that repays deep forays and repeated visits with more and more insight, more and more gold.
To gain an understanding of a great piece of music, it helps to know a bit about the social backdrop at the time and the events that were part of the composer’s world. This is what I was doing for several hours yesterday. Written in the summer of 1798, Haydn’s title for this particular mass was “Missa in angustiis” or, “Mass in Times of Distress.” The times of distress were the Napoleonic wars with the four losses Austria suffered that year, including a threat on Vienna itself. (Haydn was living mostly in Vienna by this time.) With Napoleon invading Egypt to bring down England (by way of India), foreboding filled Austria.
This led me to wonder why Napoleon was doing all this (outside of his huge ego, of course), which led to a review of the French Revolution, a short side trip into the economic fall-out of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland (aren’t links great?) on the way to an in-depth overview of the Enlightenment, which was at the heart of the thought and aspirations of the entire 18th century. (More on that later.)
Haydn, the composer who most consistently expressed the values of the Enlightenment, was at the peak of his compositional powers and had, surprisingly, ceased to write orchestral symphonies by this time. His last major works were for instruments and voices uniting powerfully to express text (masses and oratorios), written in a deeply troubled time, and informed by the full flowering of the Enlightenment.
I mean, how good does it get? My heart beats faster just thinking about the richness laying beneath all those notes. Our first rehearsal is tomorrow—it can’t come fast enough.
Visit this space often for a wealth of background information, research and interviews about our upcoming concerts, as well as cool stuff that we've found on the Internet related to music and choral singing.
p.s. You can leave comments on our blog posts! We would love to hear from you!