Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Joseph Haydn, Mass in the Time of War

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in 1791, by John Hoppner
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in 1791, by John Hoppner

Haydn’s Masses

During the course of his career, Haydn composed a total of fourteen settings of the mass.  This means he set the same words to music fourteen times.  One might think that in doing so, Haydn could not possibly have avoided repeating himself, but one would be wrong to think so.  Haydn was as devout a Catholic as ever genuflected; he loved and believed to the core of his cockles the words of the mass.  As such, he lavished extraordinarily original music on each of his masses, the composition of which was – for Haydn – an act of faith.

Haydn as Believer

Joseph Haydn was born into a Roman Catholic family on March 31, 1732, in the Austrian village of Rohrau.  He was raised Catholic and he stayed Catholic; unlike his buddy Mozart and his cantankerous student Beethoven, Haydn’s Catholicism never “lapsed.”  

Georg August Griesinger (1769-1845) in 1799
Georg August Griesinger (1769-1845) in 1799

Haydn’s personal friend and biographer Georg August Griesinger (1769-1845) described his faith this way:

“Haydn was very religiously inclined, and was loyally devoted to the faith in which he was raised.  He was strongly convinced in all his heart that all human destiny is under God’s guiding hand, that God rewards good and evil, that all talents come from above.  All his larger scores begin with the words In nomine Domini [‘in the name of the Lord’] and end with Laus Deo or Soli Deo Gloria [‘Praise to God; to God alone the glory’].

I once heard him say, ‘If my composing is not proceeding so well, I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then ideas come to me again.’  He accepted the what and the how of the teaching of the Catholic Church, and his soul found comfort therein.” 

His faith aside, Haydn wrote music for a living, which means that his fourteen masses were written because someone hired him to write them.  The economics behind the composition, in 1796, of a mass Haydn himself entitled Mass in the time of War will be told in a moment.  But first, to paraphrase the great Ricky Ricardo, “We have some ‘splainin’ to do”, because the Mass in the time of War was composed in response to events that began in Revolutionary Paris. …

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