Haydn’s Mass in time of war

On May 12, 1809, Vienna was under siege by the French, who would soon capture the city. One cannonball had the nerve to fall into the courtyard of Austria’s most famous composer: Joseph Haydn. But while his household was understandably scared out of their wits, the bed-ridden 77-year old exclaimed dryly (and a bit smugly):

“Children, don’t be frightened. Where Haydn is, nothing can happen to you.”

Mass in time of war by Haydn
Bombardment of Vienna on May 12, 1809. Haydn’s house was in one of the suburbs.

This anecdote perfectly fits the popular image of good old ‘Papa’ Haydn. He might be an old bore, but at least he offers you comfort when you most need it.

But maybe there’s a more universal message to this story as well. One about the power of art withstanding the barbary of war. Which is hard to believe in – much as I do wish a Papa Haydn in the garden of everyone who falls victim to present-day Napoleons (or worse).

The military roots of classical music

Born in a continent continually ravished by armed conflict, it’s no wonder that classical music was partly shaped by the ritual of warfare. Apart from the church, royalty and nobility were the main sponsors of music. And few things get their juices flowing like the musical praise of their glorious deeds on the battlefield.

Such military music rarely excels in subtlety. What it does have in abundance are trumpets and timpani. Their typical musical gestures – drum rolls and fanfares – found their way to the standard language of classical composers. Sometimes to evoke the battlefield, sometimes just for the fun of it – like in Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

In Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), there’s no doubt that the drumming and tooting are meant to evoke military conflict. What’s less clear, is what Haydn was trying to say.

Haydn’s mass in time of war: pacifist or belligerent?

At least since World War One, we’re used to music echoing pacifist sentiments. Examples range from Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein to Bob Dylan. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, composers more often glorified war. When that results in awful music such as Beethoven’s Wellington’s victory or Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812, we don’t need to worry about a clash between or conscience and our good taste.

But what about Haydn’s war mass? When he wrote the work in the summer of 1796, his homeland was under attack from the French on two fronts. There’s little doubt that he was literally praying for an Austrian victory. Is his Missa in tempore belli the musical evocation of that? Or a streaming indictment of war itself?

“Can we please have peace?”

Although the whole mass is of course worth your listen, you have to wait for the military-themed part until the last movement, the Agnus Dei:

The text is important here:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundiLamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world
miserere nobishave pity on us
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundiLamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world
dona nobis pacemgive us peace

The piece starts in an uneventful F major with three repetitions of ‘Agnus Dei’ – rising in intensity – and ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. But then, after about one minute, there’s a soft drum roll. In his memoires, Haydn stated that this “should sound as if one heard the enemy approaching in the distance.”

The choir starts the ‘miserere’ part. At first hesitantly, but as the war drums rise in volume, the music turns to a woeful C minor. At about two minutes into the piece, the trumpets join in, and the choir sounds ever more despairing.

At about 3 minutes, everything calms down again. Against the continuing backdrop of the timpani, the choir for the first time takes up the ‘dona nobis pacem’. Although the text is an order (Give us peace!), Haydn musically turns it into a hesitant question (Can we please have peace?) – ending on the unstable chord of G7.

Dona nobis pacem Haydn

“Give us peace!”

The answer to the question follows immediately after that: a glorious fanfare! But then comes the true message of this Mass in time of war. Instead of joining in the triumph, the chorus overrules it by shouting at the top of its lungs (the longest note in the whole mass): we don’t want victory, we want peace!

Dona novbis pacem Haydn

A few bars later, the victory march comes to a halt. After a full bar of complete silence, the soloists start a – weirdly unsynchronized – chromatic descent that completely stops the momentum.

A very short fanfare kicks everything back in gear. What follows borders on an anti-war chant. The four voices mostly pound on the ‘dona nobis pacem’ in the same rhythm – as if they’re holding banners on the streets instead of scores in a concert hall. Then there’s this exhilarating moment when the tenors and basses sing the exact same note and are answered by the altos and sopranos:

Dona nobis pacem haydn

The orchestra backs that up with drum rolls and trumpets. The musical language of war is being used to aggressively demand its banishment from this world.

What’s in a name?

There’s a fine line between interpretation and fabrication. Maybe I’ve just crossed it. Nevertheless, there’s one undisputed fact that points to the message that Haydn wanted to convey with this mass: the name itself.

Most of the well-known nicknames for Haydn’s works – like the Farewell and the Surprise symphonies – stem from the 19th century. But the name for this mass came from the man himself. He could have named it War mass, Victory mass, Glory of Austria mass, or whatever. After all, Haydn was a staunch patriot, who wrote the Austrian (and later German) national anthem. He played it incessantly on the piano during the siege of Vienna that this article started with.

In that light, Mass in time of war is an oddly unspecific title. It illustrates the universal aspirations typical of late Haydn – maybe the first composer who was truly aware of the fact that his legacy would outlive him. With this title, he subtly moves the focus from the conflict itself to what it means to those who must endure its consequences – who understand what it means to live in a time of war. He offers them comfort. But also a clear message: don’t settle for the lie that is victory – enduring peace is the only thing worth fighting for.

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