Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn and his cheerful ‘Mass in times of war’

9 September 2021

Text: Laura Roling 

In musical history, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) will forever be remembered as the ‘inventor’ of the modern symphony and string quartet. Already during his lifetime, he was praised. For 48 years, he had a tenure as Kapellmeister with the rich, prestigious Esterhazý family from Eisenstadt, who offered him – apart from some obligatory assignments – a great amount of freedom in order to attain his own ambitions and gain additional income. His music was published frequently, which ultimately rendered his music very popular throughout entire Europe. In London, Haydn was a real superstar, working there since 1790 for six years at the request of musician and impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn also composed his greatest symphonies in London.

The great appreciation for Haydn waned quickly after his death, however. The Enlightenment paved the way for Romanticism, a period in which Haydn’s contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven were much more considered as the troubled geniuses who created individualistic art. Suddenly, Haydn’s music was too balanced, too cheerful, too impersonal. The nickname ‘Papa Haydn’, which he was lovingly called by the musicians at Esterhazý’s court, was suddenly connoted with a little inspiring, old fashioned father figure who does not exactly deserves imitation.

It is because of this romantic perspective – which we also tend to hold in the 21st century – that Haydn’s ‘Mass in times of war’ does not exactly meet the expectations we have in the case of such a title. Pain, fear, sadness, despair – these emotions are rarely expressed in Missa in tempore belli. Moreover, Missa in tempore belli is composed in C major, which adds to this odd discrepancy as the key evokes glory, celebration and triumph. Although it is widely established that Haydn chose this key to show the trumpets and timpani of his time to advantage, this hardly accounts for a ‘cheerful’ mass about war.


The war

When Haydn composed his Missa in tempore belli, worrisome times were ahead. Since the French Revolution in 1789, Austria and France were at war constantly. After all, the French queen Marie Antoinette, who after years of imprisonment died under the guillotine in 1793, was Austrian emperor Jozef II’s sister. When Haydn wrote his mass in 1796, the Austrian troops were mobilized again after a short period of truce. Napoleon, commander in chief of the French army at the time, had started a dreadful and seemingly unstoppable advance in the direction of Vienna.


The Music

The time it takes before war is expressed in Missa in tempore belli, is remarkable. During the first four parts of the mass – the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and Sanctus – nothing seems to be wrong. Only in the fifth part (Benedictus), the mood changes. The orchestral introduction in C minor, with short phrases leading to a powerful climax, evokes a grim atmosphere; the four solo voices start with a relatively short motif, nervously divided amongst the four voices. However, this does not take long: during the Benedictus, there is a transition to a cheerful C major. In the ensuing Agnus Dei, the threat is more explicit: the prayer to the Lamb of God (Christ) for pity and peace is disrupted by ominous timpani rolls and stinging fanfares on brass instruments. However, this grave atmosphere quickly changes into a mood full of triumph and celebration, as if the Lamb of God has already granted peace.
In this way, the mass mainly expresses an everlasting faith in a happy outcome. It is as if Haydn does not leave space for war in the music, thereby enforcing peace.


The commission

It is important to acknowledge that Haydn – who was, nevertheless, known as a dedicated catholic – mainly composed his masses on commission. Missa in tempore belli premiered at a mass in the Viennese Piaristenkirche, where Joseph Franz von Hofmann (the son of the paymaster of the ministry of War) was consecrated as priest. It seems plausible that the dramatic effect created by the timpani roll in the Agnus Dei – which, as Haydn told his biographer Griesinger, should sound ‘as if one can hear the enemy approaching in the distance’ – refers to Hofmann’s father’s job.

Haydn also had the yearly task to create a mass in honour of the name day of Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazý’s wife. For the celebration in 1797, this involved, despite its earlier premiere, Missa in tempore belli. In other words, Haydn’s mass was conceived as entertainment for two celebratory events, which were not exactly suitable to explore the dark side of the human condition in times of war.