Michael Haydn was, perhaps, a more contented person than either his elder brother Franz Josef or his younger contemporary Mozart. After all he spent forty three years in the service of just two Archbishops of Salzburg. The court of the Prince-Archbishop ofSalzburghad a long history of music-making. Muffat and Biber had held positions at court. When Michael Haydn was appointed composer and konzertmeister to Archbishop Siegmund Christoph, Count of Schrattenbach, in 1762, he had a luxurious musical establishment numbering around one hundred. Archbishop Siegmund introduced a number of liturgical reforms into services, including German hymns in all church services and shortening the Mass settings used. Michael Haydn was an enthusiastic participant in these reforms.
So it is all the more surprising that he was amicable with Archbishop Siegmund’s resident wunderkind, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart eventually left the Archbishop’s service, chafing at the musical restrictions he was placed under. Though Mozart was never Haydn’s pupil, they enjoyed a warm relationship and the presence of Michael Haydn’s works in manuscripts in the young Mozart’s hand has managed to confuse musicologists in the past. On a later visit toSalzburg, Mozart even wrote some pieces which he passed off as Haydn’s, finding the composer too ill to complete a commission from the Archbishop.
In 1771 Haydn’s daughter Aloysia Josepha died just before her first birthday, then on December 16thof that year his patron Archbishop Siegmund died. In a remarkably rapid time he had completed theRequiem pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundoto be performed on December 31st. Though ostensibly written for his patron, this highly passionate work must reflect his emotional turmoil at the death of his daughter.
Mozart and his father had returned toSalzburgthe day before the Archbishop died and Mozart was undoubtedly present in the city whilst Haydn was writing the mass. The young prodigy (he was 15 at the time) had a remarkably retentive memory. Even if we have no written record of the impression the mass made on him, we can be sure it did make a strong impression because twenty years later, when he came to write his own Requiem, the influence of Michael Haydn’s Requiem is everywhere. There is a similarity of musical motifs in the two works and in various individual sections, Mozart’s response seems to have been coloured by his memories of Haydn’s work. But more than that, the two works seem to share the same sombre, neo-classical atmosphere.
Haydn’s orchestra uses four trumpets (two playing high, two playing low) and three trombones, doubling the chorus, as was customary, (no flutes, oboes or clarinets). From the piece’s very opening he creates a dark atmosphere with a strong depth of feeling; an atmosphere that Mozart was to reproduce in his own way in his Requiem. There are innumerable little points of similarity between the works and Robert King’s article in the CD booklet details some of them with admirable clarity. But what we must do is try and listen to Michael Haydn’s Requiem as a work in its own right.
Robert King’s recorded catalogue includes very little music by Haydn and his contemporaries, but he shows fine commitment to this music. He and the orchestra perform in well-shaped phrases and King’s speeds seem admirable.
The choir (mixed voices with women and men on the alto line) produces a focused well modulated sound; they phrase the music naturally and flexibly. Though sounding rather English in their choral sound (not necessarily a bad thing) they use Germanic pronunciation for the Latin, which is wholly laudable. Haydn uses the soloists more as a semi-chorus rather than chopping the text up into arias. King’s team (Carolyn Sampson, Hilary Summers, James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey) are beautifully blended and well balanced. I was particularly taken with Hilary Summers’ gloriously dark, focused tone, but all four sing with admirable flexibility.
This is an astonishing work; Michael Haydn was notable for his equably serene temperament and grief seems to have temporarily channelled his talent into something deeper and more significant. Robert King and his forces have given the piece a wonderful performance and I only hope it spurs other groups on to performing it.
I can only imagine that when preparing the disc, the plan was to use Michael Haydn’s later mass in honour of St. Ursula as a filler. In the event it seems to have been just too long and they have spread the works onto two discs for the price of one.
Missa in Honorem Sancti Ursulaewas written in 1793 (two years after Mozart’s Requiem and over twenty years after Michael Haydn’s own Requiem) for performance at the Benedictine Convent on an island in the Bavarian Chiemsee. Michael Haydn wrote around three dozen masses and this is a fine, substantial example of his late style. To an untutored ear, perhaps, it has rather more in common with his brother’s late style than it does with Mozart’s later masses. In the Benedictus Michael Haydn writes for soprano solo alone and Carolyn Sampson gets an opportunity to shine, which she does admirably.
King and his forces give the Mass a satisfyingly spirited performance, but these discs are memorable for their fine recording of Michael Haydn’s astonishing Requiem. This must be one of my records of the year and I do urge you to buy it.