PROGRAM NOTES

for the March 2001 Concert of

The North Shore Choral Society

by Donald Draganski

 

            Continuing our survey of all of the surviving masses of  Joseph Haydn, we present at this concert two widely contrasting works: the early Missa Brevis  in F (Hob. XXII,1) dating from Haydn's teen years, and his Schöpfungsemesse, or "Creation mass" (Hob. XXII,13)  written during the composer's last decade.

 

            In 1740, the eight-year-old Haydn was enrolled as a choir boy at St. Steven's Cathedral in Vienna. He was a lively and high-spirited youngster  -- the Empress Maria Theresa once caught him climbing the scaffolding at Schönbrunn and had him caned for his trespassing; later he was suspended from the choir for cutting off a fellow-chorister's pigtail -- despite these pranks, Haydn's fine soprano voice secured his position in the choir, at least until puberty set in, at which point his voice broke. Penniless, with only "three shabby shirts and a worn coat" to his name, he was summarily dismissed  from the Cathedral school .

 

            The Missa Brevis, scored for two soprano voices, chorus, strings and organ, was probably written in 1749 (the date was added to the surviving manuscript many later in Haydn's own hand) when the composer  was seventeen.  His younger brother, Michael, had joined the choir a few years earlier and soon outshone his brother as a soprano soloist. Most Haydn scholars now believe that Haydn wrote this short mass to be sung by himself and his brother. It should also be noted that this Mass also exists in an augmented version dating from 1805, with added wind and timpani parts; today's performance uses the original version as it came from the pen of a very youthful Haydn.

 

*****  

 

            Jumping fifty-two years forward, we  now encounter the incredible blossoming of oratorios and masses which ushered in Haydn's last years.  By 1800 the composer, after fifty unremitting years of creativity, had retired from public life.  However, he still held the title of Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy family and continued his duties in this capacity well into his retirement years.   The Creation Mass  was composed and  first performed in September 1801 at the Bergkirche at the Esterhazy estate in Eisenstadt, on the occasion of the nameday of Princess Maria Hermenegild.  Despite his age, Haydn took great pains to insure a good performance. (A member of the orchestra related many years later that, Haydn, dissatisfied with the organist's rendition of a solo passage in the Mass, ran "with the agility of a weasel" to the organ and performed the passage himself -- to the quiet delight of the other orchestra players.) 

 

            The nickname "Creation" stems from Haydn's incorporating into the Gloria movement (at the words "Qui tollis peccata mundi")  a quotation from Adam and Eve's duet in his oratorio The Creation.  Haydn's biographer, Georg Griesinger, informs us  that Haydn juxtaposed this playful tune over the words "who takest away the sins of the world"  to ameliorate the grimness of the liturgical text and suggest that most sins are nothing more than lapses resulting from human frailty.  (When Haydn sent a copy of this Mass to the Empress Marie Therese, he supplied her with an alternative version, with the "Creation" theme omitted.)

 

*****

 

                 Nowadays  concerts that last over two hours are considered excessively long, and conductors usually try to keep their presentations within those limits in hopes of minimizing the inevitable fidgeting whenever an audience is held over for musical extra-innings. By contrast, the gala all-Beethoven concert held on December 11, 1808, in Vienna offered no such palliative, for it consisted of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, a concert aria, several movements from his Mass in C minor and an extended improvised piano solo. The concert ended with what should have been a rousing rendition of theChoral Fantasy. 

 

            Unfortunately the hall was bitter cold that night, the musicians were under-rehearsed, and, according to newspaper reports, most of the audience left before the Fantasy  was performed.  In a letter written a few weeks after the concert, Beethoven complained that, as a result of a boycott hatched by Antonio Salieri (Mozart's old nemesis),  many first-rate musicians were threatened with expulsion from their guild if they participated in this performance. How much of this is true and how much is symptomatic of Beethoven's customary paranoia is difficult to determine;  nevertheless,the concert was considerably less than a complete success.

 

            All of the other works performed at that concert have established themselves firmly in the concert repertoire, but the Choral Fantasy  is generally viewed as an occasional piece, and it is the least-performed of the works that were presented on that cold Viennese evening.  However, as a harbinger of the monumental Ninth Symphony, this Fantasy  deserves closer scrutiny.

 

            The overall design of the Fantasy  is somewhat chimerical,  combining  several rather disparate elements in one package:

 

            Part 1.  An extended solo piano fantasy.

            Part 2, Finale, consisting of:

                        a. Theme and variations for piano and orchestra.

                        b.  Concluding section combining piano, orchestra, and chorus, with                              a text  by  Christoph Kuffner.

 

            The opening solo piano passage was evidently improvised by Beethoven on the spot at the concert, for the composer didn't set down on paper the printed version until several months after that disastrous first performance.   The printed score still bears a trace of  the improvisatory nature of that first performance, for at the beginning of the Finale one finds this cautionary note: Qui si dà un segno all'orchestra o ai direttore di musica: ( "Here a signal is given to the orchestra or the conductor [to begin]")

 

            The playful variations that follow feature various groups of instruments, each in turn exhibiting the tune with more and more elaborate variations.  After a brief cadenza leading into a slow and contemplative passage, a little march theme ushers in the choral finale which concludes with the following words:

 

            Take them, then, you noble souls,

            gladly, these gifts of noble art.

            When love and strength are wedded together

            mankind is rewarded with divine grace.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2001 by Donald Draganski