Joseph Haydn’s Nikolaimesse

Mass No. 6 in G Major, Missa Sancti Nicolai “Nikolaimesse” (Nicholas Mass), Hob.XXII:6 (1772).  

Missa Sancti Nicolai is the only early Mass of Joseph Haydn (b.Rohrau,1732; d.Vienna,1809) that can be directly connected to the Esterházy court. As the title suggests, it was most likely intended for the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, 1772, which was also the name day of Kapellmeister Haydn’s employer Prince Nicolaus I Esterházy (r.1762–1790). After an unusually long summer and fall season at Eszterháza, the Prince’s summer palace, Nicolaus had finally agreed to allow the musicians to return to their homes in Eisenstadt in time for the Christmas season. It has been suggested that the Missa Sancti Nicolai was Haydn’s way of thanking Nicolaus, upon the return of the court to Eisenstadt. While it was an annual custom to celebrate the Prince’s name day with the presentation of a Mass in the Eisenstadt palace chapel, this seems to be one of the few times that Haydn actually composed a new Mass for the occasion. According to Austrian musicologist Otto Biba, Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F-Sharp Minor “Farewell” (Hob.I:45), also composed in 1772, alludes to this situation. As the story goes, in the last movement of that symphony, Haydn subtly hinted to his patron that perhaps the Prince might allow the musicians to return home. During the final adagio each musician in turn stopped playing, snuffed out the candle on the music stand, and left the stage, so that at the end there were just two muted violins remaining, that of Haydn himself and the concertmaster. If this scenario is correct, then Haydn probably composed the Nikolaimesse rather quickly—indeed, several of the work’s features hint that time may have been of the essence. American musicologist A. Peter Brown refers to the Nikolaimesse as being a “hybrid work”, combining the elements of both the brevis and solemnis Mass styles. “As in the former, Haydn’s chorus delivers different portions of the Credo text simultaneously; the “Dona nobis pacem” reuses the music from the Kyrie (instructions in the score indicate Dona ut Kyrie – [perform the] Dona as [the] Kyrie”); and polyphony is sparsely employed.* By contrast, as in a missa solemnis, the shorter texts of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei are expansively treated.”** Though included by Brown and others in the subgenre of Christmas and Advent Masses known as missae pastorales, the Nikolaimesse is suitable for use during any season of the church year. For much of his earlier life Haydn’s energies were devoted primarily to composing orchestral and instrumental music. The Missa Sancti Nicolai is one of comparatively few choral works that he wrote before he was 50. John Bawden, editor of A Directory of Choral Music, opines that “[w]hile the St. Nicholas Mass is not on the same scale as the late Masses (it is about half the length of the Nelsonmesse), it is nevertheless quintessential Haydn in its energy, its tunefulness and, above all, its infectious joy.”  (28:00)

Haydn’s Nikolaimesse is conducted by music director Dr. Marc Jaros. Mary E. LeVoir is the organist. Soloists are Patricia Kent, soprano; Jocelyn Kalajian, contralto; John deCausmeaker, tenor; and Jon Nordstrom, bass. The Schola Cantorum is directed by Paul W. LeVoir. The Nikolaimesse was first presented by the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale & Orchestra during its 2013-2014 season. The Chorale & Orchestra last presented this Mass on November 6, 2018.

Recommended Listening:

  • Haydn’s St. Nicholas Mass / St. Agnes Concert Chorale Alumni / 2001 /
  • Haydn: Missa Sancti Nicolai; Theresienmesse / Pinnock, English Concert / 1993 / Archive
  • Haydn: Masses Vol. 3, Nikolaimesse; Nelsonmesse / Burdick, REBEL Baroque Orchestra / 2010 / Naxos



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