North Shore Choral Society

2006-2007 Spring Concert


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Illinois Arts Council



for the June 10, 2007 Concert of

The North Shore Choral Society

by Donald Draganski


        The North Shore Choral Society continues its eight-year traversal of the Masses of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) with today’s performance of his Missa Cellensis in honorem BVM [Blessed Virgin Mary], number XXII:5 in the Hoboken catalog of Haydn’s works. 


        Haydn’s association with the Church goes back to his childhood when, at the age of eight, his parents sent him to Vienna to join the Cathedral choir. There, in addition to singing lessons, he also received training in all aspects of practical music making, both vocal and instrumental.  By contrast, little or no music theory was offered; similarly, the schooling he received in Latin, arithmetic, writing and other non-musical subjects is described by his first biographer, Georg  Greisinger, as “scanty.”  As with so many other composers of his generation, Haydn was largely an autodidact.  As he himself remarked, he learned far more from hearing music than from studying it.


        The young Haydn’s excellent singing voice attracted the attention of the director of the Choir School who thought he could make the youth’s fortune by turning him into a permanent soprano.   Greisinger recounts the incident:


                ‘At that time many castrati were employed at Court, and the director actually wrote to Haydn’s father for permission to operate on the boy.  The father, who totally disapproved of the proposal, set forth at once for Vienna and, thinking that the operation might already have been performed, entered the room where his son was and asked, “Sepperl, does anything hurt you?  Can you still walk?”  Delighted to find his son unharmed, he protested against any further proposal of this kind, and observing a castrato who happened to be present strengthened him all the more in his resolve’



        When the young Haydn’s voice broke, he was peremptorily cashiered from the School and sent back to his parents.  With only  “three mean shirts and a worn coat,” he stepped into the world to make his way as a professional musician. His parents were upset over this turn of events and tried to persuade the young boy to study for the priesthood.  (This was the real reason for his father’s putting a stop to the castration, for such an operation would have disqualified Haydn from receiving Holy Orders.) Haydn, firm in his resolve to pursue a secular musical career, opposed his parents’ wishes and spent the next few years in a state of poverty that at times came perilously close to starvation.  Public recognition of his talents finally brought him to the attention of the wealthy Esterhazy family who, in May 1761, signed him on as Vice-Kapellmeister.  For the rest of his life Haydn remained associated with the Esterhazys, although in later years, when he had achieved financial independence, his position with this noble family had become largely nominal.


        The Missa Cellensis in honorem BVM  seems to have been composed in two stages.  The Kyrie and Christe date from 1769, with the remaining movements written around 1773.  (A word of caution:  Haydn wrote another mass I782 which he also called “Cellensis,” a much shorter setting that has no connection with the earlier Mass.)


         “Missa Cellensis” means literally “Mass for Zell,” referring to the town of Mariazell in the Styrian hills, about 30 miles south of the Danube.  It is the site of a Benedictine monastery, founded in 1157 and famous for its woodcarvings.  As early as the 14th century it had become a favored site for pilgrimages, and, during Haydn’s lifetime, the town was attracting over 100,000 pilgrims a year.  The Esterhazy family, as benefactors of the monastery, would no doubt have prevailed on Haydn to name a Mass in its honor.


        The Mass shows considerable contrapuntal complexity, evidence that Haydn had been heavily influenced by the Italian models of his day. It was also the longest Mass setting he had composed up to that point, thus laying the ground for the large-scale masses and oratorios that were yet to come during the last fifteen years of his life. The scale of this Mass suggests that, despite its name, it had probably never been performed at Mariazell, its priory being quite ill equipped to do justice to a setting of this scope.  It was most likely presented in Vienna during one of its Cecilian Congregation celebrations – hence its alternate title,  “Cäcilienmesse.”         


        Griesinger recounts how, many years earlier, the then- eighteen-year-old composer had made a pilgrimage by foot from Vienna to Mariazell, a trip that took  five days.  Upon arriving, Haydn expressed a wish to sing in the choir at the church, but the music director refused permission.  “Undaunted, Haydn sneaked into the choir during a service, waited for a solo section, deftly snatched the music from a chorister, and proceeded to sing the solo to everybody’s delight and surprise.”


        As we consider the sizeable output of sacred music that Haydn produced, we might wonder what his own personal religious feelings were. We know that he remained a devout Catholic throughout his life.  It was his practice to inscribe the beginning of each new manuscript with the words “In nomine Domine” (In the name of the Lord) and end it with  “Laus Deo” (Praise be to God).  He was punctilious in observing the customary rubrics and ceremonies that were the mark of a good practicing Catholic of the time. He was, however, sufficiently open-eyed about his faith that he once took his wife to task for entertaining too many priests at the dinner table, as she responded to their mendicancy far beyond what their modest family household budget could allow.


        To what extent Haydn’s faith entered into his art is impossible to determine, but we do know the effect his music had on Goethe who wrote the following:


        “For nearly fifty years, practicing and listening to Haydn’s work has always given me a feeling of fulfillment.  At every contact with it I have had an involuntary desire to do what seems to me to be good, and what ought to please God.” (Kunst und Altertum, vol. V)


Copyright © 2007 by Donald Draganski









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