Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, organ, strings, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, and mixed chorus
First LA Phil performance: March 11, 1976, Zubin Mehta conducting
Despite the common tendency to think of Haydn and Mozart as comparable shining lights of the Classical era, the truth is that each is a distinctive and different personality and musical character. One reason is the strict chronology of their lives and careers. Haydn was born nearly a quarter of a century before Mozart, and can be considered a product of the late Baroque period. Haydn adapted and elevated forms already in existence (among them the string quartet, the keyboard sonata, and the symphony), whereas Mozart took these forms and polished them to a level of sublime perfection.
The other end of their chronology plays a significant part in the sometimes confusing comparison: Haydn outlived Mozart by almost 20 years, earning himself a reputation as the venerable “Papa” Haydn; Mozart scarcely reached middle age.
Haydn’s Baroque beginnings came full circle in his later years with the composition of two grand Handelian oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), but he also produced a remarkable series of mass settings for his patron at Esterhaza, to whose service he had returned as a part-timer after his successful years in London. Among the most celebrated of these works – mixing the symphonic techniques he had perfected over the writing of his 104-plus works in that genre with the theatrical lessons learned in the laboratory circumstances that produced his many operas back in the earlier days at Esterhaza – this Mass in C, “Missa in tempore belli” (Mass in Time of War), had actually been given earlier in Vienna and had historical foundations.
In 1796, following on the footsteps of the French Revolution, Austria was surrounded by a Europe at war, and Haydn composed his “Mass in Time of War” for the entry into the priesthood of the young son of the Imperial Paymaster for War. Haydn’s theatrical experience provides a link between the Mass in Time of War and the later contribution of one Giuseppe Verdi to the canon of sacred masterworks with his gigantic Requiem.
A sense of theatricality pervades this mass, above and beyond the rest of Haydn’s works in the form, perhaps owing to the circumstances that surrounded Vienna at the time of its composition. Those years have parallels with modern times, certainly in the widespread sense of unrest and political instability.
The coloratura demands he makes on the solo singers allow Haydn to illuminate the text in subtle and startling ways; some have claimed he ignores the devotional nature of the mass, but certainly the composer who dared to set the Seven Last Words of Christ in a series of adagios knew a thing or two about the mystical nature of sacred music.
Even without the added intensity that marks the traditional depiction of the final judgment in Mozart’s Requiem and the later work in that category by Verdi, Haydn incorporates dramatic musical elements, particularly in the Benedictus and later – in the Agnus Dei – the use of threatening timpani in the moments before the concluding plea for peace (Dona nobis pacem).
— Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.