March 2023

Haydn         Te Deum no. 2 in C
Stanford    Songs of the Fleet
Haydn        Nelson Mass

The guards’ chapel

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) was in his time the most celebrated composer in Europe, admired and revered by the public and by his peers. His works are characterised by a joyous exuberance, creative invention, classical elegance and intellectual power.

He composed two settings of the Te Deum, both in C major with the second being the more substantial of the two.  It was written in autumn 1799, at the suggestion of the Empress Maria Theresa, and received its premiere the following year in the presence of Lord Nelson.  It is a magnificent choral drama in three parts, with two lengthy Allegro passages in C major surrounding a central, prayerfully contemplative and harmonically chromatic Adagio in C minor.  The striking opening Allegro incorporates plainchant whilst the final ebullient section concludes with a magnificent double fugue at ‘In te Domine speravi’ with a syncopated coda.

In 1795 Haydn’s employer Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy commissioned him to compose a new setting of the mass each year to mark the name-day of his wife, Princess Maria. The Nelson Mass of 1798, described by Robbins Landon as ‘arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition’, is the third and most celebrated of these last masses.

In 1800 Nelson, heralded as the saviour of Europe since his victory over Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile, visited Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, where he and Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton met Haydn. It was here that the Te Deum, along with the Mass in D minor, were performed in Nelson’s honour.  It used to be assumed that the mass had been inspired by Nelson’s victory, but news of the battle did not reach Eisenstadt until two weeks after the work was completed. Whatever the reason, after his visit it became known as the Nelson Mass. Haydn later catalogued it as Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times)a clear reference to the Napoleonic threat.

The dramatic Kyrie eleison opens in D minor. At Christe eleison the music moves to a brighter F major and the first of a series of virtuosic soprano solos is heard. Unsurprisingly, the Gloria reveals Haydn at his most cheerful, recalling the magnificent world of The Creation, first performed a few months earlier. The bass solo, Qui tollis peccata mundi, is a clear reference to Mozart’s Requiem, and perhaps intended as a tribute to Haydn’s admired colleague. After this slower section a soprano solo brings us back to the key of D for Quoniam tu solus, and the movement ends with a spirited fugue.  The Credo begins with a canon between pairs of voices in strict imitation at the fifth, apt for a strong declaration of faith.  The exquisite Et incarnatus est leads to an intense Crucifixus. The following Et resurrexit bursts into life with explosive energy, with a remarkable soprano solo at Et vitam venturi.  The chorus ‘speaks’ a portion of its lengthy text, declaiming on one repeated note, although here Haydn, who set his mass texts from memory, has apparently inadvertently omitted the words ‘qui ex Patre Filioque procedit’.

After the Sanctus comes the Benedictus, a movement of exceptional emotional and dramatic intensity. Here Haydn returns to the dark D minor tones heard in the Kyrie, with a series of exchanges between soloists and chorus culminating in a climax looking ahead, perhaps, to Beethoven. The Agnus Dei, sung by soloists only, is followed by an extended Dona nobis pacem which, in contrast to the usual supplicatory prayer, is almost operatic in style, typical of Haydn at his most exuberant.

Songs of the Fleet, Op 117, by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), are written for solo baritone, chorus, and orchestra and date from 1910.  They were originally intended for the Jubilee Congress of Naval Architects to be held that year, but the death of Edward VII in May postponed the Congress until 1911; Stanford opted instead to unveil the work at the 1910 Leeds Festival, where it was triumphantly received.

There are five movements in total, of which we are singing three.  The first, the gloriously assured ‘Sailing at Dawn’, evokes a vast armada heading out of port as morning breaks.  Subtle harmonic touches underpin a memorable melodic line, where a baritone verse is answered by the chorus; both join together in the refrain (‘lead the line’), in which they remember the ‘souls of all the seadogs’ who went before.  The third movement, ‘The Middle Watch’, with its tonal shifts between G minor and G major, evokes a dusky mystery and sense of awe, an atmospheric portrayal of sailing at night and of looking ahead ‘til ye find life and the land of the morn’.  Music and text take a lighter turn in the fourth movement, ‘The Little Admiral’, a jaunty tribute to the enduring legacy of Horatio Nelson.