Haydn’s Nelson Mass

Easter Concert

Mass for troubled times was the original title of Joseph Haydn’s beautiful Nelson Mass, and there is no doubt that much immortal art has been created in conditions that have been challenging and tiresome.

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The three works on tonight’s programme are completely different – from the heartfelt and touching Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale, to the reflective Et la vie l’emporta, and finally the incredibly beautiful and effusive Nelson Mass. But they all have one thing in common: they are composed in difficult times.

The French Revolution is the backdrop for Haydn’s Nelson Mass, which he composed in 1798. Those were very troubled times in Europe, including in Austria where Haydn lived.

Napoleon was continuing to advance and had won four major battles against Austria within the space of a few months. While Haydn was writing the mass, Napoleon invaded Egypt. Just before the premier performance of the mass, Napoleon suffered a stunning defeat against the British forces under the heroic leadership of Nelson, a one-eyed, one-armed, brave admiral. The mass gradually earned the nickname The Nelson Mass and, after Nelson attended a performance of the mass two years later, the name stuck.

Et la vie l’emporta (And Life Triumphed) is Frank Martin’s final work, which he completed just 10 days before he died in 1974. The Swiss composer, who wrote this work in the shadow of serious illness, reflects on the struggle between life and death and, as the title reflects, life’s ultimate victory.

Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale is characterized by a nationalistic spirit. The Czech composer Josef Suk wrote this work in 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War. The hope was that the war would lead the country to independence and out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 

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