Classical V: Heroes from Olden Times

Heroes from Olden Times features the Yakima Symphony Chorus performing the “Lord Nelson” Mass by Haydn.  Lord Nelson was famous for his heroic defeat of Napoleon in 1798. Rounding out the program are Albinoni’s haunting Adagio and Grieg’s masterpiece for string orchestra From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style.

Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (June 8, 1671-January 17, 1751)
Remo Giazotto (September 4, 1910-August 26, 1998)
Adagio in G minor

In his time, Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni was well-known for his operas, but history has made him better-known as an instrumental composer.  He was born to a rich family and managed to avoid the typical court positions, composing freely. The Adagio in G minor for violin, strings, and organ continuo was first attributed to Albinoni by musicologist and Albinoni biographer Remo Giazotto. Before WWII, Giazotto reportedly discovered a manuscript fragment with some chords and a portion of melody.  He then created a new composition based on the fragment and published it under Albinoni’s name.  Since then, there has been considerable debate about whether the alleged fragment was real or a musical hoax perpetrated by Giazotto, but recent scholarship has shown that the fragment did exist.

The piece is most commonly performed by string ensemble, but its haunting melody and somber setting has led it to be transcribed for other instruments. The composition has also been used as background music for many films, television programs, and other media, including: The Trial (1962, Orson Welles), Rollerball (1975), Fame (1980), Dragonslayer (1981), Flashdance (1983), The Doors (1991), Manchester By The Sea (2016), The Sopranos, Malcolm in the Middle, and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The music has also been “borrowed” by pop musicians, including The Doors, Richard Clayderman, Procol Harum, and Sarah Brightman.

Edvard Grieg
(June 15, 1843-September 4, 1907)
From Holberg’s Time; Suite in Olden Style, op. 40

Born in Bergen, Norway, Grieg received formal musical training in Leipzig, where he studied the works of German Romantic composers that would influence all of his writing. In 1864, he experienced a stylistic breakthrough, which involved combining folk-oriented melodies and rhythms with mainstream 19th-century forms, producing works that had two desirable effects: offering music that reached people within a particular country, and promoting a national identity to the international mainstream. He composed songs and piano pieces, arranged all types of folk music, and eventually produced large-scale works. He is Norway’s most famous composer and received numerous acknowledgements during his life.

From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style was composed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Norwegian humanist writer, philosopher, and playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754).  Composed as a suite of five movements based on 18th-century dance forms, the music is charming and elegant. The piece was originally composed for the piano but was arranged for string orchestra a year later by Grieg himself.

The work opens with an enthusiastic and engaging Praeludium.  This is somewhat surprising since Preludes more frequently draw listeners in gradually, rather than grabbing their attention right away.  The Sarabande is introspective and stately. Traditionally, sarabandes are slow dances in triple meter, though their roots are more sensual and lively than might be expected.  The next movement, Gavotte, is more upbeat, yet still somewhat reserved.  Traditionally, gavottes are line dances with combinations of slow and quick steps, even occasional leaps, which can be inferred from Grieg’s setting.  The Air is a gentle lyrical piece with an engaging melody that one can envision being sung.  Grieg’s final movement, Rigaudon, is lively and harkens directly to this dance’s folk roots.  A slow, nostalgic contrasting section is somewhat surprising, but the folk dance returns to bring this wonderful work to an uplifting, if not somewhat abrupt close.

Franz Joseph Haydn
(March 31, 1732-May 31, 1809)
Missa in Angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times or “Lord Nelson” Mass), Hob. XXII/11

Haydn’s early life as a singer and free-lance musician in Vienna has been thoroughly documented, as has his steady rise from a relatively early age to the position of Kapellmeister (basically Music Supervisor) for the court at Esterhazy. In this job, he managed an court-supported ensemble of 15-20 players and composed according to his employer’s will. In the early days, he composed mostly instrumental music for Prince Nikolaus’ twice-weekly concerts and the court’s Tafelmusik (banquet/feast band). Later, when the court’s taste changed, he wrote operas as well.  The 1790s were a time of ups and downs for Haydn.  The Esterhazy family suffered a number of deaths as well as considerable financial instability that caused his responsibilities at court to vary quite a bit.  By the late 1790s, however, he was re-invigorated with success from tours to London and a new surge of interest in music at the court.

Premiered September 23, 1798, Missa in Angustiis is one of fourteen masses written by Haydn and represents some of his finest work.  Some experts have even argued it is his single greatest composition, with its sophisticated mixing of soloists, chorus, and orchestra.  At this time, Napoleon was on the mind of everyone in Europe, and in 1798 he suffered a significant defeat in Egypt at the hands of British forces led by Admiral Horatio Nelson.  Because of this coincidence, the mass gradually acquired the nickname “Lord Nelson.”  The subtitle was fixed when Lord Nelson himself visited Esterhazy in 1800 and may have heard the mass performed.

The text is a slightly altered version of the Catholic Mass, and the movements follow the typical Mass format. The atmosphere of war (or “troubled times”) is evident in the opening Kyrie, with trumpet fanfares. The middle Christe section, featuring the soprano soloist, is softer, more pleading.  The Gloria that follows mixes the soloists and chorus very effectively, carrying the celebratory mood all the way through.  In the middle, a peaceful Qui Tollis features the bass soloist.  The Quoniam that follows returns to the celebratory music of the opening Gloria, with the soprano soloist leading the way.

The Credo begins with an old church melody sung imitatively by the chorus. A slow, tender Et Incarnatus describes the Crucifixion, featuring the soprano soloist.  A brighter Et Resurrexit reminds us of the Resurrection and the promise it holds for those who believe.  The short Sanctus is at first slow and more dramatic but becomes increasingly uplifting as the chorus sings praises to God.

A long Benedictus follows, starting pensively but building quickly to a surprising aggressive mood, with powerful fanfares in the orchestra and chorus offset by soft contrasting encouragements in the soloists. The uplifting Hosannas from the Sanctus are reprised at the end of this movement.  The finale begins with a gentle, flowing Agnus Dei for the vocal soloists, and then the chorus takes over for a rousing Dona Nobis Pacem which concludes the work.

In this work, it should not be surprising to hear sounds reminiscent of the large-scale sacred works of Handel and Mozart, who dominated this genre before Haydn took it up with any seriousness.  What is also clear is that Haydn is at the height of his musical powers and, as demonstrated by the power of the music, was truly inspired to write this piece.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018