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By the end of the 18th century, Haydn was a musical hero famous across Europe and largely independent of his continued employment at the Hungarian court of Prince Nicolaus II. Not so much so, however, that the Prince – the fourth of the Esterházy family for which the composer worked - was not jealous of his nominal rights, particularly when it came to sacred music. The very musical Empress Marie Therese, the second wife of the Emperor Franz II (confusingly later Franz I of the Austrian Empire, newly constituted by Franz after his Holy Roman Empire’s embarrassing defeat at Austerlitz), had wanted Haydn to write something for her for several years before he was able to compose this very grand Te Deum for her. Even so, its first known performance was at the Eisenstadt palace of the Esterházys in September 1800, celebrating a visit by the British naval hero Lord Nelson.
Like Haydn’s so-called “Nelson” Mass, this jubilant and brightly colored Te Deum in C major employs a large orchestra, including three trumpets (rather than Haydn’s usual two) and three trombones. The only dark moment is a brief, soft central Adagio in C minor. Elsewhere joy reigns, with plenty of choral unison for emphasis, but Haydn also works up a spectacular double fugue at the end, with a brilliantly syncopated conclusion.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.