Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791)
Haydn and Beethoven at the court of Prince Esterharzy
Our final concert of the season, on March 23rd 2019, features two contrasting masses written for Prince Nikolaus Esterharzy II and his court in Eisenstadt at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Haydn's 'Mass in Time of War' was written in 1796. Haydn was the leading composer in Europe at the time, at the height of his powers and an international celebrity.
In his position as Kapellmeister (Music Director) to the Prince's court in Eisenstadt, he was required to write a new Mass each year, to be performed on the name day of the Prince's wife. The Mass in Time of War is the second of the six masses he wrote for this occasion between 1796 and 1802. This period was to be the final flowering of his genius.
By 1796, four years into the European Wars that followed the French Revolution, Austria was doing badly against the French and feared invasion. Haydn's Mass reflects these unsettled times, and debate has raged about whether it is anti-war, or is intended to stiffen the resolve of the Austrians. The music is at it's most warlike in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, before brightening to end with an almost dance-like celebration of peace in the final movement, Donna Nobis Pacem.
By 1803 Haydn's health was failing and he was unable to compose further. To continue the tradition of commissioning a new Mass each year for his wife's name day, the Prince turned to other composers - principally to Hummel, who succeeded Haydn in the position of Kapellmeister at Eisenstadt.
In 1807 Prince Niklaus commissioned Beetoven to write a mass, and the resulting work was the Mass in 'C'. Beethoven had been a pupil of Haydn from around 1790 to 1794, and was very conscious of continuing a tradition started by Haydn.
But Beethoven's Mass in 'C' represented a big stylistic change and was not at all what the Prince had expected. The first performance did not go well. The Prince was uncomplimentry about it, and Hummel is said to have laughed at Beethoven's discomfiture. It was Beethoven's most humiliating public failure.
Since then the Mass in 'C' has been one of Beethoven's less frequently performed works. It is often overshadowed by the immense Missa Solemnis, written some fifteen years later, though it has a directness and an emotional content that the later work sometimes lacks.
Some describe the Mass in 'C' as an long under-rated and under-appreciated masterpiece. Come and judge for yourselves!