Fall 2010 concert program notes

Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass no. 14 in B-Flat Major, Harmoniemesse
George Frideric Handel: "Zadok the Priest" from the Coronation Anthem No. 1  

J.S. Bach: Part 1 from The Christmas Oratorio 


Joseph Haydn Mass no. 14 in B-flat Major "Harmoniemesse"

It is with good reason that Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is called “the father of the symphony and the string quartet”. In his long career, this extraordinarily prolific, inventive and influential composer created and refined the musical structure that became the model for the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and composers well into the twentieth century. He also formalized the string quartet as a genre. His astonishing catalog of compositions includes 104 symphonies, 84 string quartets, 50 piano sonatas, 32 pieces for musical clocks, 15 stage works, 14 masses, 8 sonatas for violin and piano, plus cantatas, oratorios, works for solo voice and numerous compositions for other combinations of instruments.

In 1761, at age 29, he was engaged to be assistant music director for the Esterházys, a wealthy Hungarian family, at their estate in Eisenstadt, a small town geographically not far from Vienna, but musically isolated. He soon became their music director (kapellmeister) and composer-in-residence and was taken with them when they relocated to a new and even more culturally remote estate. (Haydn said that his isolation from other musical life until late in his career had forced him to become original.) Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who had been Haydn’s patron, died in 1790. His successor, who was not a music lover, dismantled the family musical establishment and granted Haydn a generous pension.

During the following five years Haydn twice sojourned in London (1791-92 and 1794-95) at the invitation of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Even though he had spent almost his entire career in the musical household of a provincial family, by the time of his arrival in London Haydn had become one Europe’s most highly esteemed composers. The fabulously successful London trips made him into the equivalent of today’s rock stars, enhancing his already great reputation and securing his financial future. Those trips, during which he composed his final dozen symphonies (often called the “London” symphonies) and heard and was deeply moved by the music of Handel, also resulted in the two great oratorios The Seasons and The Creation.

It was after his return from London to a newly musical Esterházy household that Haydn wrote his final six masses, one per year, for that family. The Harmoniemesse, composed in 1802, was the 14th and last of Haydn’s masses, and his last completed work. (In German, harmonie is the term for a wind band, here applied due to the prominence of wind and brass instruments in the orchestration).

In several movements, notably the Gloria, Credo, Et Resurrexit, Sanctus and Pleni Sunt Coeli, Haydn’s desire to project the clarity and drama of the text prompted him to declaim it homophonically (all voices singing the words simultaneously).

In contrast, the Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus, Benedictus Qui Venit in Nomine Domine and the Et Vitam Venturi Saeculi contain complex fugal passages. In keeping with his other masses, choral and solo passages are alternated within each movement in a concertato fashion, and there are no long arias. The soloists frequently sing as an ensemble, in writing akin to Haydn’s instrumental quartets.

The opening Kyrie, sounding like the introduction to a symphony, bursts out with a dramatic and passionate choral entry on the words “Lord have mercy”. The soprano soloist then introduces a bouncy Gloria in Excelsis Deo. These contrasts characterize not only this mass, but also much of Haydn’s repertoire. Throughout the entire piece his irrepressible sense of humor is evidenced by sudden pauses and re-entries, unexpected pianos and fortes, setting the Benedictus Qui Venit in Nomine Domine over a jazzy “walking bass” and in the Dona Nobis Pacem even tipping his hat to the wind band and later inserting a miniscule quote from Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night soprano aria from The Magic Flute.

This mass, like his Mass in Time of War and Lord Nelson Mass, was written while Europe was in the throes of the seemingly endless Napoleonic wars. So it is hardly surprising that the Dona Nobis Pacem, rather than resembling an aspiration to eventually and peacefully rise to heaven, starts off with a martial fanfare and sounds more like a fervent demand for peace in our time, and RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, Haydn did not live to enjoy that peace. He died in 1809 during the French occupation of Vienna.

Joseph Liebling


Coronation Anthems - George F Handel (1685 - 1759)

One of the lasts acts of King George I before his death in 1727 was to sign "An Act for the naturalizing of George Frideric Handel and others." Handel's first commission as a naturalized Britsh citizen was to write the music for the coronation later that year. The four anthems Handel composed for the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline on 11 October 1727 have never lacked popular favor.

Zadok the Priest 

(with words adapted from the first chapter of the First Book of Kings) opens with a tour de force that no degree of familiarity can stale. The long ritornello, based on rising violin arpeggios over richly spaced repeated chords for lower strings and woodwind, prepares the way for a resplendent climax at the entry of the voices in 7 parts together with the trumpets and drums. Handel specifies no tempo and no dynamics except soft at the start and loud at the chorus entry; but the music implies a long sustained crescendo that conveys an overwhelming sense of expectation and suspense. The anthem is in three sections with the chorus for the most part moving homophonically to present the text clearly: there is scarcely any counterpoint. There is little harmonic surprise and the piece is firmly rooted in the tonic D major (the key dictated by the old valveless trumpets): thus Zadok is a supreme example of Handel's power to make a unique statement by the simplest means. The words of Zadok the Priest have been sung at every coronation since that of King Edgar in 973AD, and Handel's setting has been sung at every one since 1727.

J. S. Bach - The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

bachThis oratorio is intended for performance in church during the Christmas season. The oratorio is in six parts, each part being intended for performance on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period. The structure of the story is defined to a large extent by the particular requirements of the church calendar for Christmas 1734/35.

The first part (for Christmas Day) describes the Birth of Jesus, the second (for December 26) the annunciation to the shepherds, the third (for December 27) the adoration of the shepherds, the fourth (for New Year's Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the fifth (for the first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi, and the sixth (for Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi. The music represents a particularly sophisticated expression of the parody technique, by which existing music is adapted to a new purpose. Bach took the majority of the choruses and arias from works which had been written some time earlier. Most of this music was 'secular', that is written in praise of royalty or notable local figures, outside the tradition of performance within the church.