June 2013

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Music from Vienna

Fux Nisi dominus
J. Haydn Maria Theresa Mass

Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) was an Austrian composer, music theorist and pedagogue of the late Baroque era. He studied at the Jesuit university in Graz and became organist at Ingolstadt before arriving in Vienna in the late 1690s, where he came to the attention of the Emperor Leopold I.  He became court composer in 1698 and principal court Kapellmeister in 1715; he also became kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna.

Fux was the greatest master of the Austrian baroque; his death represents the end of that era in the country.  His works include 19 operas, 10 oratorios and about 80 masses, of which the Missa canonica (1708), written in canon throughout, is particularly admired. After the emergence of the classical style his music never regained favour, but his mastery of counterpoint influenced numerous composers, including Haydn and Mozart.  His treatise on counterpoint, Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), became the single most influential book on the Palestrinian style of Renaissance polyphony. Nisi Dominus survives as a manuscript in the University library at Darmstadt; it demonstrates the composer’s famed contrapuntal skill and a gift for conveying the sentiment of the text, for example at ‘in vanum laboraverunt’ (they labour in vain), the urgency of the ‘surgite, ante lucem surgere’ (arise before light) and ‘sicut sagittae in manu potentis’ with rising phrases depicting the flight of the arrows.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was an Austrian composer, one of the most prolific and prominent of the classical period. He spent much of his career as a court musician for the Princes Esterházy on their remote estate. Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, ‘forced to become original’.  At the time of his death he was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

The Maria Theresa Mass (Theresienmesse, Hob. XXII/12), in B flat major, is named after Maria Theresa of the Two Sicilies, empress consort of Francis II; it was premiered in September 1799 at the Bergkirche, near the Esterházy family seat in Eisenstadt.  The scoring is restrained, with a wind section of just two clarinets and two trumpets (Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, forced to make wartime economies, had dismissed most of his wind players) but Haydn skilfully uses this relatively small group to great effect, with mellow clarinet tones and a sombre authority from the trumpets and timpani.  The mass is a work of marked musical contrasts, and is the most intimate and lyrical of all the late masses.  The Kyrie both opens and closes with chamber music-like adagio sections, between which are a lively choral fugato passage and a lyrical ‘Christe, eleison’, both based on material from the adagio.  The Gloria falls into three extensive sections, closely following the text.  A blazingly triumphant opening is temporarily stilled by the minor-keyed ‘Et in terra pax’.  This moves onto a central ‘Gratias’, which starts tenderly, soloists entering one by one bringing with them a increase in harmonic intensity.  The powerful ‘Qui tollis’, in C minor, with its triplet upper string passages, further develops the earlier music before arriving at the final ‘Quoniam’, which in turn forms the basis of another choral fugato.  The Credo contains typical examples of word-painting – a lowering of both pitch and dynamic for ‘et invisibilium’, a profoundly meditative ‘Et incarnatus est’ in B flat minor and a  dancing fugue ‘Et vitam venturi’ celebrating the joys of life to come.  An intimate Sanctus is followed by a pastoral Benedictus in G major, with fluid solo passages and a distinctively Austrian feel.  The startling unison opening to the Agnus Dei gives way to the restorative ‘Dona nobis pacem’ in the home key and with a lyrical openness that characterises this whole magnificent work.