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Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass)




                                 by Deirdre Donovan


The soul-stirring sounds of Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn's Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass) swelled through Saint Thomas Church in a one-night only

concert on November 12th, with the renowned Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s joining their talents.  As their inaugural concert of the season, it had a frisson of excitement and a rich autumnal feel to it.  And those in attendance were treated to a real classical feast for the ears in this historic Fifth Avenue setting.


The first offering was Mozart’s RequiemWhile this piece has gained much notoriety over the years and became even more familiar through Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and later film of the same name, this fresh performance of the work allowed one to take off the romantic-colored glasses and really listen to this liturgical composition in earnest.  And what could be a more ideal setting for it than Saint Thomas Church with its elegant stained glass windows and smoothly polished wooden pews?  The program included the text to the mass in Latin and English, allowing the audience to follow each sacred song, word by word, as the orchestra and choir, dressed in flame-red, performed.


 So how did this (unfinished) masterpiece come into existence? And what parts did Mozart actually compose?  Well, according to the program notes, Mozart composed seventy-five per cent of the Requiem (Requiem, Kyrie, part of Dies Irae, and Domine Jesu), with his devoted pupil Franz Xavier Sussmayr completing the rest (Sanctus and Agnus De)But that said, there’s no question that the poetic impulse and indelible musical character of the Requiem belong to Mozart alone. 


True, everybody has his, or her, favorite movement in the Requiem.  But the opening phrases of the Introitus and Kyrie are impossible to ignore, with their dark tonal rhythms accompanied by the century-old words.  And as the various orchestral instruments—violins, violas, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, and timpani—slowly came into play here, the audience grew hushed and silently embraced the beloved and timeworn piece.  Guest conductor Andrew Nethsingha shepherded the orchestra through the intricate phrasing of each movement, and the pitch-perfect chorus added a human pulse.  While I have heard this work on many superb recordings over the years, this live performance--with solos sung by soprano Katharine Dain, mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, tenor Dann Coakwell and bass Charles Perry Sprawls--proved that the Requiem only reveals its secrets on repeated revisits.   


The second offering was Haydn’s Missa in Augustiis (Nelson Mass).  Translated “Mass for times of distress,” anybody listening to the work would likely feel an increase of hope, faith, and more.  Many scholars rank it as Haydn’s greatest work--and those newly listening to it at Saint Thomas Church would hardly argue with that verdict.  This mass (1798) was written in the same decade as the Requiem, and though it clearly is a musical cousin to Mozart’s famous work, it also possesses a unique joy and celebratory spirit that sharply contrast it with the earlier composition.


Although no one has pinned down, once and for all, how the piece became dubbed the “Nelson Mass,” many have speculated that it might be linked to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s military victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile.  And if that seems like a stretch, there’s the tale that Lord Nelson himself visited the Palais Esterhazy in 1800, with his mistress, and listened to the mass.  But, say what you will, the nickname for Haydn’s Missa in Augustiis rings down the ages. 


Looking beyond its legendary nickname, the composition has clear martial overtones threaded through the score that imbue it with a powerful character. Haydn composed it on the heels of his Creation when he was at the top of his game as a composer.  And, in spite of the fact that there are no woodwinds in the piece (possibly due to Haydn’s financial constraints), the strings, organ, trumpets, and timpani join together with a robust force.  The piece is known for its antithetical character, where dark and light themes are set against each other, sometimes in the same movement.  It is the third of the master’s six late masses.  And with Nethsingha conducting, and the orchestra and choir in fine form (with solos by virtuosos Dain, Patterson, and Coakwell), there’s no question that it was a first-rate rendering of Haydn’s mass.


Even more than the impressive talent of the artists here, the setting of the concert at Saint Thomas Church spoke volumes.  It signaled that both masses were meant, not as commercial vehicles, but as liturgical compositions—and healing salves for those in distress or experiencing loss.



If you haven’t been to a concert at this historic venue, you really should include it on your holiday calendar.  The Messiah, in fact, is their next concert (on December 8th and 10th).  Go for the listening, exit with a blessing. 


One performance only, November 12th.

at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, One West 53rd Street, Manhattan.

For more information, and to order concert tickets and recordings online, visit