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Napoleon, Europe, and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of Affliction”

Two hundred years ago, “by the tidings, in amaze / the earth is held, and with her gaze / the parting hour doth mutely scan / of this great spirit,” as we read in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Fifth of May. In fact, on May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in Saint Helena, a British island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

In the whirlwind of the Napoleonic story, historians distinguish three periods: one in which General Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1769, after the victorious Italian campaign and the expedition to Egypt, ascended to the power with the coup d’état of November 9 — indeed of 18 Brumaire, according to the calendar of the French Revolution —, 1799; the other in which the First Consul of the Republic, after great military conquests on the European continent, is proclaimed and crowned Emperor of the French (1804) and King of Italy (1805); the third in which, after the unfortunate Russian campaign (1812), the Emperor declines, first confined to the Island of Elba and then, after the defeat suffered at Waterloo in 1815, exiled to St. Helena.

In what serious affliction European society found itself due to the Napoleonic storm is easy to imagine. The bayonets of the Napoleonic army carried throughout Europe the spirit of 1789, “when the frightening revolution unleashed in France, having overthrown the old civil order, had destroyed the ancient religion everywhere” (Pius X, Duplicem, nostis, September 14, 1904). There was the matter of affliction for two popes, “both of whom were torn violently from their episcopal see and taken to exile” (Benedict XVI, Speech at the Quirinal Palace, October 4, 2008). Pius VI, taken prisoner, died in prison elderly and suffering, in Valence, southeastern France, and the Jacobins wrote the following in the certificate that was sent to the Administrative Director: “Today Gian Angelo Braschi died; his profession was pope, his stage-name was Pius Sixth and the last.” The Servant of God Pius VII, kidnapped and deported to France, immediately after his election had to counter the bullying of the Emperor of the French. Affliction for Rome, which in 1809 was reduced by Napoleon to the second city of the transalpine empire after Paris, the new caput mundi. Affliction for the papal archives, historical memory of the millennial activity of the Church: confiscated by the emperor, the Vatican Secret Archive and other archives of the Roman Curia were transported to Paris in 1810.

And affliction also for the Father of the Symphony, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who, in a very short period of time, between July 10 and August 31, 1798, composed his Missa in Angustiis, i.e. “mass in time of affliction”, known as Nelson-Messe, in D minor, for solos (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), mixed choir and orchestra (flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and organ). Monumental and “celebratory”, the only one in a minor key, this is the third of his last six masses, which are almost symphonies for choir and orchestra on the text of the Mass, written from 1796 to 1802 for the name-days (on September 12, feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary) of Maria Josepha Hermenegild of Liechtenstein, wife of the Hungarian prince Nikolaus II Esterházy de Galantha (1765-1833). For almost thirty years Haydn was responsible for all the musical activities at the sumptuous court of the Esterházy princes: many serious and comic operas in Italian, oratorios, masses, instrumental and vocal music of various genre, the bulk of his 52 piano sonatas and of his 104 symphonies were written here.

The subtitle of Nelson-Messe derives from a commentary on the performance of this work in the Church of the Scots (Schottenkirche) in Vienna, published in July 1800. Having come to speak of the unusual signals of trumpets and drum rolls present in the Benedictus, the anonymous author, quoting a conversation with Haydn, said: “When I described to him the splendid effect these isolated trumpet calls had made, the worthy old man recounted to me the cause of this idea, which seems to me of psychological importance. Just as he was writing this Benedictus he received news from Prince Esterhazy: a courier had arrived with the news that Nelson had beaten the French. From this time onwards he was quite unable to get out of his imagination the picture of a trumpeting courier, and as the idea of his Benedictus was so closely related to this image he incorporated the obbligato trumpet part [three trumpets in unison]” (Journal des Luxus und der Moden, vol. 15, Weimar 1800, pp. 330-331).

Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the greatest hero in British naval history, sank Napoleon’s ships like so many toys on August 1, 1798, in the Abukir Bay, near Alexandria, in the Battle of the Nile. In September 1800, together with his wife Emma, the admiral visited Eisenstadt on his return trip to London; here he witnessed the performance of this composition, which took place in his honor, probably under the composer’s baton.

Born, raised, trained and firmly fixed in the ancien régime, Haydn is in angustiis because he fears the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars. Precisely this peaceful and serene musician, Austrian and Catholic, who — in the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his On Art and Antiquity — “creates music naturally. Temperament, sensitivity, wit, humor, spontaneity, gentleness, strength, even those two indications of genius itself, naivety and irony, all these are already his own. If all these qualities, impossible without a deep  and warm humanity, are indeed his characteristics, we must recognize his art as being antique in the best sense of the word […] All modern music has is work as its basis. […]. For my part, I have always hoped to be able to say, as warmly and as sincerely as I feel it, that the perfect harmony expressed by his genius is nothing less than the serenity of a soul born free, clear and pure. […] These works are the language of truth: each part is essential to the whole, an integral part, yet showing a life its own” (J.W. Goethe, Über Kunst und Altertum, Vol. 9, 1826, p. 126ff.).

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