Few wanted to serve in Nelson’s navy. Brutal and degrading, it could destroy body and soul. Many seamen, excluding the officers, were conscripts.
Trafalgar was a particularly brutal battle, Nelson’s 27 ships taking on a larger fleet of 33 French and Spanish vessels. Fighting at close range, the ships fired at each other with a combined charge of large round cannonballs and musket balls, which blew holes in the sides of ships, blasted their masts, and cut down the men on deck. Ships also collided and caught on fire; in short, battle was a hellish nightmare.
If you did not die on board from a shot or ship fire, you stood a good chance of drowning. If lucky, you came home missing only an arm or a leg, or worse, with an incurable infection or in a state of shock.
Nelson himself, although an Admiral and thus not expected to be in the thick of the fray, lost an arm and an eye in battle— and that was before the battle of Trafalgar, when a bullet from a French musket punctured his shoulder and passed through his torso. His body was sent home “embalmed” in a butt of brandy. His men and many more of the enemy ’s men, met a watery grave, if they didn’t die lying unattended on the deck, or incinerated by flames.
Proud of the shiny medals he had garnered in his military career, Nelson wore them on his chest, making him unfortunately an easy target for a musketeer.
The sailors who lived under him did not have to try so hard to die. While working large vessels that were difficult to maneuver and turn around, often navigating unfamiliar waters, they had to feed and shoot the cannons; load and fire heavy muskets, and stay focused during the general mayhem and damage to the ship, among other duties.
Nelson’s sailors and marines numbered 1700, most dead or wounded in this combat. Many of them most likely didn’t understand the odds against Britain’s success in that battle, when they left port. With a smaller fleet, Britain’s chances of winning against the allied forces of France and Spain, were slim.
The sailors probably got it when they saw the combined fleets of France and Spain looming before them. Nelson, a brilliant strategist, invoked an ancient stratagem, divide and conquer; driving his vessels through the middle of the flotillas, he separated them into smaller units, where individual ships could be picked off more easily.
The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar is part of what is known as the War of the Third Coalition. The Napoleonic Wars continued for several years after, although Trafalgar was a major turning point for Britain.
Nelson’s men, even If they suffered under the harsh regime of the British Navy, could not help but admire this man who insured Britain’s future. While decimating the enemy fleets, Nelson did not lose one ship. The Napoleonic Wars did not end, but after Trafalgar, no one doubted Britain’s dominance as a naval power. Trafalgar was the last great sea action of the period and it ended Napoleon’s plans of invading England.
Nelson’ victory made him a lasting popular hero at home. His statue still looms above London’s Trafalgar Square, commemorating his stupendous success.
The renaming of the Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times) as the Nelson Mass is an act of cultural appropriation. Looked at another way, it is an example of the way in which art accrues meaning through time.
Written originally for the Esterhazy family in 1798, the original title reflects the turmoil and angst that afflicted the Austro-Hungarians as Napoleon drove his forces closer to them.
Napoleon had won four major battles in Austria in less than a year. In early 1797, his armies had crossed the Alps and threatened Vienna the previous year. One can only imagine the general distress and unease as Napoleon romped across Europe, expanding his territorial reach and influence.
“Augustiis” is a suggestive term, its Latin root meaning “narrowing” or “constricting.” In Haydn’s title, it takes on a double meaning, conveying the emotional strain as well as the actual physical encroachment of Napoleon’s forces, as they narrow in on the Austro-Hungarian territory. More broadly, the term suggests that all wars are dehumanizing, by constricting the power to love and understand our fellow humans, even when fought for so-called noble ends.
Meanwhile, Nelson’s navy was deployed far and wide (hence, his many metals). Nelson had recently defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile, but England was fearful of a coming confrontation closer to home.
Before Trafalgar, stories of the battles on land and sea, with mixed success and loss of lives, raised anxiety and fear in England. But after Trafalgar, a British audience could not help but hear a different reflection of war in Haydn’s mass, one that centered the outcome on the here and now.
The mass, as a musical form, projects the spiritual battle for one’s soul; the opportunity for salvation and eternal life of the spirit against the damning darkness of hell. Haydn brilliantly stages this spiritual conflict within the context of an actual war, when life on earth and life after death are both at stake.
Only some of Nelson’s ships had chaplains on board, and sometimes the captain had to stand in as one. But in the midst of a raging battle, lying wounded or dying was a lonely affair. If you were Catholic, you could die without the rite of Extreme Unction. Nelson’s men were primarily protestant, but they too died without the support of friends or family, or spiritual care. Nelson himself met this fate.
One can only surmise the complex feelings this piece engendered after Trafalgar. Haydn’s mass offered its British audience a ritual service, providing the dead, including Nelson, the memorial they were denied in battle. It would be easy read Nelson, the hero, as a Christ figure who sacrificed his own life for the country’s salvation.
You can also hear the pleas for salvation, for both the physical survival for those suffering in the war, as well as for their spiritual afterlife. This conflation of the secular and religious is woven throughout the mass, and you can interpret it with an ear toward either direction, or both.
The opening Kyrie of the mass plunges us into the fury of battle, giving us the listeners a vicarious experience, if necessarily muted, of the terror it engenders. If we sing it right, the repeated “Kyrie Eleison” is a desperate soldier/sailor’s plea to be spared, both body and soul. The opening notes suggest the drum beat of a battle charge; it’s followed by a wistful interlude and then the layered part of voices seeking relief, with the soprano solo sending her plea upwards to the heavens. At the conclusion of the “Kyrie,” the soprano voices stay high, while other parts descend downward, mimicking the separation of body and soul.
Listen carefully and you will hear the cries of the sinner as those of the wounded crying out to God not to be abandoned and forgotten, as they lie on a battlefield or on an embattled ship. You will also hear the fears of those at home, uncertain of the outcome and imagining the worst.
Haydn’s mass actually frames the trajectory of war, from the fear and desperation experienced in the midst of battle to a projected victorious celebration and closing wish for resolution and peace. Along the way, following the prescribed order of the mass, dark emotions erupt, calling us back to the experience of war and suffering.
The Gloria sounds almost giddy and overjoyful following the “Kyrie.” Set against its exuberant opening, “Et in terra pax” rises with a dark energy from the bass solo, and is interwoven with the tenor part, together coming to rest on an extended “bonae voluntatis,” (to men of goodwill), an emphasis that calls attention to the necessary conditions of peace. But you can also hear a march rhythm throughout the “Gloria,” accented by drumbeats in its final rousing notes.
In the Qui Tollis , the bass soloist is set against our choral voices that enter so quietly as to suggest the dying request of the almost-forgotten begging to be remembered. The chorus’s “Miserere Nobis,” sung with especially poignant desperation, as if the wounded long for a glorious transmutation of their dying selves. First, softly, then with a final desperate plea, as death approaches. I, for one, try to sing it that way.
Quoniam and the Credo form a pair. The first reaches toward a supreme being on high from the distance of our earth-bound circumstance, building toward its conclusion with stately praise and percussive energy. The Credo then closes the gap, making a more personal and intimate connection. Our conductor asks us to sing it with “lightness,” I believe to assert some personal joyfulness after the heavily doctrinal “Quoniam.” For me, our punchy lines convey conviction and determination (again, it is tempting to read the “Credo” in the context of Haydn’ s troubled times, when those qualities were badly needed). Our voices reach upward, holding a long high note at the conclusion of the “Credo,” then dramatically descending downward, mimicking the action, “descendit de coelis,” the divine coming down to earth, to reach us.
Those last lines set us up for the high drama of the mass: the Incarnatus Est, the miraculous birth, followed by inevitable suffering and death, and the responding “Resurrexit.” I cannot help but wonder if the “Incarnatus” resonated with mothers in the audience fearful of losing their sons in war, or grieving over recent losses, with the insidious Pontius Pilato (Pontius Pilate) standing in for Napoleon. The last measure, an extended “est,” indicates the finality of death, at least for us mortals. That stasis is countered by the opening “Et,” also a measure long, of the “Resurrexit,” which sets up a felicitous, energetic response to the sadness that proceeded it.
The Resurrexit, if triumphant, has a dark, almost defiant edginess. To me it implies that victories, both earthbound and sublime, come with a cost as well as a sadness that triumph can’t suppress. Our conductor, Ming, hears angst, framed in retro-baroque orchestration. Embedded in the “Resurrexit’s” frenetic energy, is a drawn out ominous note, recalling us to the prospect of our own deaths; we sing “vivos and mortuous, ” (those alive and dead). our voices low and fearful on “mortuous,” that state of nonbeing that is on the approach. I love the repeated “non” that we sing with “non erit finis,” calling us back to the eternal reign (“cujus regni”), with an implied allusion to temporary worldly kingdoms. It is sung with an insistent irritation, as if lifted from colloquial speech, a kind of protest in a way.
Haydn places a poignant emphasis on the concluding lines “venturi saeculi,” the soprano doing a long riff on the “amen” that is joined to it, followed up by the chorus repeating the line, with another long amen, as if sealing a positive hope for the future. I imagine Haydn’s audiences in both Austria and England hearing in these lines their hope for a guaranteed peace on earth, as much as for a blissful afterlife.
The “Sanctus” opens with one of the most haunting passages in the piece and one that can be heard so many ways depending on the listener, from somber to peaceful to otherworldly. Slow and majestic, it creates a kind of stasis inside this lively piece, as if everything is put on hold by the divine order.
In the “Sanctus” you can also imagine the outbreak of popular elation, especially in the grateful lines “Pleni sunt coeli et terra” and the “Hosannah.” When Haydn wrote the mass in 1798, he most likely did not realize how well these passages would suit the celebration of a conquering hero.
In the “Benedictus” we hear a quiet sadness alternating with the drumbeats of war reflecting back on the opening Kyrie. The relevance to Nelson’s victory is hard to miss, especially when the chorus sings in unison, “benedictus qui venit in nomine domini,” with pounding force.
War leaves us with sad memories that cannot be erased, and fears that there is more conflict ahead. The soprano’s voice, for me, distantly recalls the passage in Alexander Nevsy when Olga wanders the ravaged battlefield searching for her suitors. The chorus’s concluding “Hosanna” circles back to a heightened celebratory note before the concluding section of the mass, the “Agnus Dei.” And yet, something ominous still lingers in this benediction, something that can never be set completely right— the unavoidable clash of emotions that arise in troubled times, also heard in the Resurrexit, and if you listen for it, throughout the mass.
In the Agnus Dei, the piercing ‘tollis peccata mundi,” sung by the alto and soprano soloists, can have a sobering impact on those of us living in today’s troubled times. Our world often seems beset by misdeeds for which we bear collective responsibility. If no one can take them away for us, it is difficult not to wish for a magical solution.
Haydn’s “Dona Nobis Pacem is strikingly buoyant and hopeful, projecting a lasting peace that a conclusion of war will bring. Of course, when first performed in Austria, peace was a faraway prospect. Faith that peace will be restored helps keep people going in the direst moments. The British kept that vision in the face of continued bombardment during World War II, as once again enemy forces threatened their small island.
Today, armed conflicts rage across the planet. Fed by news reports and social media, a general anxiety about the future has spread throughout the country. Haydn’s title Missa In Angustiis, suggests there will be other troubled times—such as ours.
In 1798, Haydn’s mass offered solace and hope, when peace was not a sure thing. Appropriated by the British, it accrued a new layer of meaning, celebrating victory and a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. But it is worth noting that the conflict continued across Europe for years after.
Today, if it is not easy to imagine good outcomes in our own uncertain times, we have delicious music that carries us away, if only for a needed respite. Maybe, finally, that is what Haydn had in mind.
A Note on Mozart’s Coronation Mass
Underlying its religious setting, the mass as an art form celebrates a spiritual force, or moral fiber, or call it what you will, that cannot be reduced to temporal cravings. And yet, like all art, each mass cannot help but reflect the social and political context that gave rise to it. War and political turmoil have inspired much of the music the Berkeley Community Chorus has sung, including Verdi’s Requiem, Prokofiev’s’ Alexander Nevsky, and Britain’s War Requiem. One of the ironies of history, the most horrific wars often give rise the most sublime music. By confronting war, choral music performs a kind of spiritual balancing act, the communal joining of voices countering the destructive forces of war.
Mozart’s Coronation Mass premiered in 1779, almost two decades before Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis was completed. Mozart’s piece received great acclaim when it was played at the coronation of Francis !! as the Holy Roman Emperor in 1792. This mass rings with tones of majesty and celebratory fervor, composed as it was under very different circumstances from Haydn’s much darker work.
Francis II disavowed his title in 1806 after losing to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, declaring himself as the first Emperor of Austria in 1804. Little did Francis know that he would be the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, or that ensuing centuries would bring new cycles of war and regime changes. Together, the two masses we sing today comment on those cycling events, fueled by greed and ambition, as well as by the desire for peace and stability
Both Haydn and Mozart celebrated events that would not last; good for us, their music did.