Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass. Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.
Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear. In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself. (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!) The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood. By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800. Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements. And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.
Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt. We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world. His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.
Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound. He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing. I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding). Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures. He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.
It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride. Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury. That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.