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Lord Nelson Mass

Serge Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major Classical Symphony (1916-17)

The 100th anniversary of Haydn's death, in 1909, may have inspired the neo-classical spirit that flourished among composers of a century ago and that retained its allure well into the middle of the 20th century. After composing his First Symphony, Prokofiev said, "I imagined if Haydn had lived to our day he would have preserved his manner of writing and at the same time would have absorbed something of the new." Yet somehow the Classical Symphony's cheeky wit reminds one more of Beethoven—the Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8 come to mind—than Haydn. Still, this is one of many works that show Prokofiev as actually a more classical and even conservative figure than some of his work – the orchestral Scythian Suite, say, or piano Sarcasms -- suggests.

   Still, the wit carries. The third-movement gavotte defies the 3/4 time of the classical style, but manages to impart a dance, if a goofy one, that works just as well when it shows up again in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Among composers of their generation, Prokofiev and Stravinsky were exceptionally competitive.  So what about the Classical Symphony's theft of a theme from Stravinsky's Petrushka? As for Haydn, David Fanning wonders if the larghetto movement owes something instead to Glazunov's Raymonda. And doesn't the careering finale sound like something from Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden?  Maybe the real question is where does flattery end and plagiarism begin?

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings (1880)

The word 'serenade' has enjoyed common use for so long it might be easy to forget its reference to a particular time of day: evening. But the name is not lost on composers who take up the "form" that has been so elegantly elevated by those who came before. Serenades, notturnos, divertimentos and cassations, among others, represent the Classical evolution of the Baroque suite, a set of French dances (originally) that over time has morphed into various character pieces and pictorial tableaux.

   Tchaikovsky's forays in this direction include four orchestral suites that get very little exposure these days. They, and the Serenade for Strings, were all composed between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, during the decade of 1878-88. The Serenade itself was completed in less than three months, in October, 1880. (The string sextet, Souvenir of Florence, of 1890, can well be considered its worthy sibling.)   

   While works for string orchestra are plentiful in the 19th century, masterpieces of the form are few and far between. This is certainly one of them.  It qualifies as an homage to the 18th century model, and offers no shortage of tunes to go home humming

The stately opening of the first movement, a "piece in the form of a sonatina," returns to complete the movement, and is then recalled at the conclusion of the finale. While the Waltz may inspire toe-tapping, the Elegy is the true heart of the work, as yearning and impassioned, inspired as it is well-crafted. The Finale's opening Russian theme introduces the folksong Under the Apple Tree, and then the two are fitted together.

Franz Joseph Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass

According to scholar and biographer H.C. Robbins Landon, Josef Haydn was "astonished and deeply moved" upon hearing the great Handel oratorios—particularly Israel in Egypt and Messiah—during his first visit to London, 1791-92. He even began to suggest that the Baroque oratorio still had life in it, if updated to the taste and style of the day. Ultimately, the experience led him to compose two major oratorios, The Creation (1796-98) and The Seasons (1799-1801). However, during the same time span, he also wrote the six late masses that bring to bear the full weight and orchestration he used in composing the last twelve—and still his most popular—"London " Symphonies.

   These symphonic masses, commissioned for the most part to celebrate the name days—day of the year associated with one's given name—of his Esterhazy patrons, also exploited Haydn's long history as an opera composer, and not without sparking some controversy. "When I think about my God my heart leaps with joy," the composer declared opening, "and then my music leaps with it." This admission provoked a member of the reactionary Cecilian movement to go on the attack. "Many of (Haydn's) church compositions are not pervaded by the spirit of holy seriousness which is proper for the house of the Lord, but by a comical, profane wit," he complained bitterly.

   Apparently guilty as charged, Haydn's dramatic, even theatrical, Missa in angustiis—Mass for Troubled Times—of 1798 was premiered at the parish church in Eisenstadt, the urban seat of Esterhazy power. The work picked up the nickname 'Nelson' after the British admiral vanquished the French in the Battle of the Nile; but, as with virtually every other nickname that sticks to Haydn's various works, it was appended by others. 

   The only one of Haydn's masses in a minor key (D Minor), the work explodes with fear and anxiety. But even in the opening Kyrie, the solo soprano gives the first display of operatic coloratura. Motivated by vigorous rhythms, sharp accents and an erupting orchestra, it proceeds with pounding timpani and choral outbursts right through the ensuing Gloria in excelsis Deo. Only in the adagio Qui tollis peccata mundi does the spirit become reflective. Explosive energy returns for the fugal Cum Sancto Spiritu.

   After the sternly authoritative opening of the Credo, Haydn turns the three narrative episodes—incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection—into an operatic scena. The solo soprano returns for the tender Et incarnatus est; the chorus restores anguish to open the Crucifixus; and then it softens into mysterious anticipation of the energized Resurrexit, with trumpets and drums punctuating a richly textured allegro. (Hints of The Creation are easy to spot here.)

   The softly intoned Sanctus is almost brushed aside by the forte Pleni sunt caeli. The soprano gets the spotlight once again in the Benedictus, interrupted by muscular choral outbursts and the reappearance of the other solo voices, arriving at a stentorian warning to the faithful.  The exuberant Hosanna in excelsis closes the section. The adagio Agnus Dei restores a pastoral character favoring the solo alto, then soprano, while the Dona nobis pacem takes flight to the very music that "leaps with it."

   Despite all the success that came to Haydn in the last two decades of his life—the wealth, the undiminished artistic growth, the greatest fame of any musician in Europe—he never fully got over the death of Mozart, and was said to have burst into tears whenever he saw Mozart's son. But one will look in vain for any personal grief in his music. Like Moses, he could look over into that Promised Land of romantic personal expression, but could never quite go there. The Nelson Mass owes much to Mozart, but more to Handel, and, perhaps ironically, even better anticipates Beethoven.

Program notes by Scott MacClelland

 

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