Haydn and Handel

Handel: Dixit Dominus

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born into a typical German middle-class family with no hint of musically talented ancestry. His precocious musical activity initially distressed his parents, but a local official insisted that he receive regular instruction. Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, an organist and composer in Halle, taught him techniques of composition and the playing of violin, oboe, clavier, and organ. By the age of 18, Handel had earned the important position of harpsichordist in Hamburg’s opera orchestra. During the next three years there he wrote four operas and a St. John Passion.

In the Fall of 1706 his trip to Italy began a defining formative period for his musical style. His devotion to the human voice and his strong interest in large and dramatic musical canvases prompted his enthusiastic immersion in the exciting and fertile Italian music scene. Acquaintance with Carissimi (oratorios), Alessandro Scarlatti (opera), Domenico Scarlatti (harpsichordist), and Correlli (concerto grosso and development of violin music) surely made a profound impression on the young and talented Handel.

A papal ban in Rome forbade opera performances, so the 22-year-old Handel turned his attention to church music, oratorios, and secular cantatas. His eight-movement setting in 1707 of Dixit Dominus (Psalm #110 in the Protestant Bible, #109 in the Vulgate) is a work marked by tremendous energy and inspired use of theatrical gesture, which shows that the ban on operatic music did not preclude the composition of vivid dramatic music!

The first movement demonstrates the distinctive brilliance and rhythmic vitality of the Italian influence in contrast to the long notes of a cantus firmus fragment of Gregorian chant. This latter majestic theme returns in the closing movement with the text “As it was in the beginning…” providing unity to the expansive opus. Other characteristics of the late Baroque Italian string concerto are to be found in the orchestral framing of the choral portions and returning sections at intermediate points with occasional changes in key.

Throughout Dixit Dominus much is demanded of the five-part chorus of vocalists in virtuosity and energy. Whether negotiating the rapid double fugue of Movement V, expressing the percussive intensity of “conquassabit” in Movement VI, or successfully executing the intricate vocal passages in Movement VIII, each chorister cannot deny the extraordinary creative power of the young Handel.

Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass

Franz Josef Haydn’s (1732-1809) enormously productive, 54-year composing career was also enormously diversified. “Papa Haydn”, as his friend and protege Mozart called him, `fathered’ the symphony and the string quartet, though he originated neither, in the sense of expanding these relatively new forms to full flower. Notwithstanding his contributions to those genres, he also produced keyboard music, orchestral concerti, trios, and miscellaneous concert pieces. While many regard his orchestral and string literature as his most itant contributions, his vocal compositions are imposing in their own right: Solos and partsongs, folksong arrangements, canons, music for plays, about eight oratorios/cantatas, and 14 operas– although the latter are rarely performed today. He also wrote much church music, as befitted one whose first real `break’ was the position of Vice-Kapellmeister with the noble Hungarian Esterhazy family. While some of the church music was composed quite early– he wrote his first mass for the Esterhazys after about five years in their employ– his job responsibilities moved more in that direction late in his career, after his triumphal reception in London in the early 1790’s. By that time he was in the service of the third generation of the Esterhazy family.

The Mass in D was written in the summer of 1798, about five years before ill health forced an end to Haydn’s composition. He had just completed his premier oratorio, The Creation, inspired by Handel works he heard on his London visits. Haydn named this mass Missa in Angustiis, perhaps meaning Mass in Fear or Mass for Stress; this may have reflected personal stresses or Esterhazy family events, or it may have arisen from Austria-Hungary’s stressful political situation. Two years previously, Haydn had written a Mass in Time ofWar, recognizing the concern gripping all of Europe, which was cowering before the shadow of the ambitious young Napoleon; the Mass in D may similarly have reflected political concerns, although it may be significant that this title does not read Mass in Time of Fear, to parallel the title of the earlier work. The title, (Lord) Nelson Mass was applied to this music by others after 1800, probably because the work was among those performed for Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton when they visited Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt Castle in September of 1800. Ironically, the Battle of Aboukir, in which Nelson’s fleet took the French by surprise and decimated them, occurred while Haydn was at work on the Mass; Haydn, however, could not have known of Nelson’s victory until weeks after the Mass was finished, and apparently never sanctioned naming the mass for the English hero. The Mass has also been known in some venues as the “Coronation” or “Imperial” mass, which may have been due to bad history, or simply to a misidentification among the Haydn masses (Haydn’s Missa Cellensis was contemporaneous with the 1765 coronation of Josef II as Holy Roman Emperor). In any event, there is no clear linkage between this Mass and national or international events.

Given Haydn’s own title, it is puzzling that the Mass does not exhibit an obvious character of sorrow, stress, or fear. Much of the work, to the casual listener, evokes joy and feelings of hope, which seem unrelated to the somber title. Haydn’s assignment, for all six of the last masses, was to write such works for the name day of Princess Esterhazy, this one in September, 1798. Obviously, one does not celebrate such an important event with somber music, and that probably accounts for the overall cast of this work.

Notes on Haydn are courtesy of J. R. Fancher
Naperville Chorus
P.O. Box 51
Naperville, IL 60556