by Donald Draganski
for the March 17, 2002 Concert of The North Shore Choral Society
The North Shore Choral Society continues its transversal of the masses of Joseph Haydn with this performance of his Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, also known as the “Kleine Orgelmesse” (no. XXII.7 in the Hoboken catalog).
Fourteen masses by Haydn survive, including two fragments that were discovered and authenticated as recently as the latter half of the twentieth century. Of the twelve complete masses, six were written early in Haydn’s career, while the last six were all produced during the last thirteen years of his life.
Haydn was already beginning to enjoy international recognition by the time he wrote this Mass. In 1776 he was asked to prepare a short biographical sketch for a publication entitled Das gelehrte Oesterreich, or “Erudite Austria.” Although in many ways a modest man, Haydn took his work quite seriously, as we can see in his statement in which he complains that certain “Berlin Gentlemen will in one weekly paper praise me to the skies, whilst in another they dash me sixty fathoms deep into the earth, and this without explaining why; I know very well why: because they are incapable of performing some of my works, and are too conceited to take the trouble to understand them properly.” These are the words of a man who clearly recognizes his abilities and will not submit to condescending criticism – not even from the doyens of Berlin.
The Little Organ Mass was composed sometime between 1775 and 1778. Saint John of God (1495-1550), after whom today’s Mass was named, was the founder and patron saint of The Brothers Hospitallers, a religious Order devoted to providing medical services to the poor. The Esterhazy family, Haydn’s patrons, was a generous supporter of the Order, and this particular Mass was written for the Brothers’ church in Eisenstadt. To call this edifice a “church” is a bit of an overstatement, for it was little more than a tiny chapel with a small organ and a loft the could accommodate at most a handful of instrumentalists – hence this Mass’s nickname, the “Little Organ Mass.” Given the space constraints, Haydn scored this Mass for organ, string quartet, and a chorus probably not exceeding twelve singers. The overall structure of the Mass suggests that it was intended for use in an actual Eucharist, with the individual movements kept quite brief as befits music for a religious service. The chorus sings throughout, with the exception of the “Benedictus” section which incorporates a soprano soloist.
It is an odd fact that both of Mozart’s major Mass settings were left incomplete. The composer’s death understandably left his Requiem (K. 626) unfinished, but his great Mass in C Minor (K. 427) remains a torso for a variety of curious reasons.
In 1777, while visiting Mannheim, the twenty-one year old Mozart met and became infatuated with the young singer Aloysia Weber. Leopold, the composer’s father, alarmed and angry over any involvement that would jeopardize his talented son’s career, did his best to discourage the match. However by 1781 Mozart’s affections shifted to Aloysia’s younger sister, Constanze, whom Mozart describes in the following passage in a letter dated Dec. 15, 1781 to his father:
“...my good, dear Constanze, she is the Martyr of the family, and probably because of it the most kindhearted, the most skilled, in a word the best of them all. ... She is not ugly, but also not really beautiful; – her whole beauty consists of two little black eyes and a graceful figure. She has no great wit but enough common sense to fulfill her duties .... She has the kindest heart in the world– I love and her and she loves me with all her heart. Now tell me whether I could wish for a better wife?”
Despite Leopold’s continued opposition to Mozart’s involvement with the Weber family, Wolfgang and Constanze were married the following year, in August 1782, in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna. (Leopold’s consent arrived only after the wedding ceremony!)
Although begun a few years earlier, Mozart’s C minor Mass was his gift to Constanze as a thank-offering for their marriage. In 1783 Mozart brought his new wife to Salzburg to introduce her to his family, and he also brought his Mass which was performed in that city under the composer’s direction, with Constanze singing the solo passages.
The question now arises whether Mozart actually finished the Mass with some of the parts having disappeared, or whether he left it incomplete, perhaps filling in the gaps with passages from earlier works. The parts that survive are the Kyrie, the Gloria, the first part of the Credo, and a very faulty copy of the Sanctus and Benedictus. (There is no Agnus Dei.) Stylistically, this Mass shows some influence of Handel, particularly in Mozart’s handling of the contrapuntal choral passages. (Constanze was particularly fond of baroque fugues, particularly the works of Bach, and one might well imagine Mozart wanting to please her by incorporating these fugal passages.)
The C Minor Mass is, like a late Michelangelo sculpture, a masterpiece despite its incompleteness. Mozart makes use of maximum resources, including a large orchestra that includes trombones, a double chorus and soloists. One author speculates that Mozart may have abandoned the piece owing to a policy that began surfacing within the Catholic Church that banned the use of orchestras in churches. Whatever the reason for its incomplete state, we can still be thankful for yet another masterpiece from the heart and soul of that extraordinary man we call Mozart.
–Copyright © 2001 by Donald Draganski