Friday, October 21, 2005

Masses of Nelson

Today is Trafalgar Day here in the UK, and we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of that famous famous sea battle. As I drove into work the flag of St George was flying from the churches, the Queen is lighting one of many beacons around our coasts this evening, and tonight's live concert on BBC Radio 3 is Haydn's Nelson Mass.

Trafalgar Day has a particular resonance in Norfolk. Horation Nelson was born here in Burnham Thorpe in 1758, the sixth of 11 children. He was made a Captain in the navy at the age of just twenty. He was given his first command when Britain entered the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. While serving in the Mediterranean he lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and the sight in his right eye in the siege of Corsica.

His leadership style was cavalier. In another age he would probably have been chief executive of an Enron or WorldCom. He famously won the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 by ignoring the order to cease action after putting a telescope to his blind eye. He showed himself to be very much the modern man with his extra-marital liaison with Emma, Lady Hamilton. Both partners remained married to others, but a child, named Horatio, was born to them.

The defeat of the French by Nelson's fleet at Cape Trafalgar saved Britain from invasion by Napoleon. But Nelson didn't live to savour the victory. On October 21st 1805 Nelson was killed by a French sniper's bullet on the first day of the battle.

Haydn's Nelson Mass is strongly, but incorrectly, associated with the English Admiral. The Mass in D was written in the summer of 1798, and was named Missa in Angustiis (Mass in time of Fear) by the composer. News of Nelson's celebrated victory at the Battle of the Nile in that year couldn't have reached Haydn until some time after the composition was completed. The Nelson connection was almost certainly not Haydn's, and probably came about because Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton heard it when they visited Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt Castle in 1800. The title Nelson Mass was never authorised by Haydn, and the work is also known by Haydn's own description, Missa in Augustiis, as well as the spurious Coronation or Imperial titles.

But don't lets quibble about a name, let's celebrate Trafalgar Day round the world through the wonder of the internet. Here's an excerpt from the Gloria of Haydn's Nelson Mass in the performance by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert -

Credits:

Lord Nelson picture - Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre
Audio clip - Amazon

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