Program Notes for Haydn & Vaughan Williams

Program Notes by Michael Driscoll

RVW photoRalph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

As a youth growing up just outside London, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied piano and harmony with an aunt and also took piano, organ, and violin lessons. He entered the Royal College of Music in 1890, continuing his studies two years later at Trinity College, Cambridge where he earned degrees in music and history. He followed this with another year of study at the Royal College of Music. His composition teachers during this time included Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford – both well-known and highly regarded British composers. Vaughan Williams followed his schooling with additional studies in Berlin with Max Bruch (1897) and in Paris with Maurice Ravel (1908). Despite his studies with Bruch and Ravel, Vaughan Williams felt that his compositional voice would be found through native material. To that end, he began developing an interest in English folk music, collecting his first folksong, Bushes and Briars in 1903. In all, he collected over eight hundred English folk songs and their variants, most before 1910.

In 1895 Vaughan Williams met Gustav Holst (1874-1934) while studying at the Royal Academy of Music. The two young composers established a close friendship, becoming one another’s chief critics. Vaughan Williams later observed, “What one really learns from an Academy or College is not so much from one’s official teachers as from one’s fellow-students.”[1] Vaughan Williams and Holst continued these critiques of each other’s work until Holst’s death.

Vaughan Williams was the principal conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival from its inception in 1905 until 1953. In 1919 he was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. For the remainder of his life, he taught, composed, and conducted his own works throughout Europe and the United States. Upon his death in 1958, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey near the burial places of Purcell and Stanford.

Over the course of his career, Vaughan Williams composed ten staged works, over thirty orchestral works, thirty-nine choral-orchestral works, as well as a number of shorter choral works, hymns, carols, and folk song arrangements. He retained a fairly conservative harmonic language throughout his life. While his early works were frequently based on past eras, his later works often employed modal melodies and ambiguous tonalities.

Five Mystical Songs

After the success of On Wenlock Edge (1909) and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), Vaughan Williams earned a commission to write a work for the annual Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England. He decided to complete the settings of five poems by Welsh-born English metaphysical poet and priest George Herbert (1593-1633) upon which he had been working for some time. The completed work received its first performance on September 14, 1911 at the Worcester Festival with Vaughan Williams conducting.

Five Mystical Songs is written for baritone soloist and – in a utilitarian fashion typical of Vaughan Williams – may be accompanied with several different instrumentations, including piano alone, mixed chorus and piano, as well as mixed chorus and full orchestra. Today’s performance will feature Vaughan Williams’ original version for orchestra, though without the optional horns, trombones, and tuba. One can hear elements of French Impressionism in Vaughan Williams’ orchestration, from his time spent studying with Ravel in Paris.

Though a self-declared atheist in his younger years, Vaughan Williams’ settled into what his wife Ursula described as a “cheerful agnosticism.” Despite these views, Vaughan Williams was inspired “…throughout his life by the liturgy of the Anglican church, the language of the King James Bible, and the visionary qualities of religious verse such as [George] Herbert’s.”[2]

In Five Mystical Songs, Vaughan Williams set four of Herbert’s poems to music. (The poem ‘Easter’ is divided into two parts, which form the first two songs of Five Mystical Songs.) The baritone soloist dominates the first four songs of the Five Mystical Songs with the chorus taking a secondary role. The first song, ‘Easter,’ reflects the poet’s joy at the Resurrection. Vaughan Williams uses the orchestra to full effect, producing a variety of tone colors to support the text. The Easter theme continues in ‘I Got Me Flowers,’ in which the poet imagines being present at Christ’s resurrection. The chorus joins in a confident confirmation that ‘There is but one, and that one ever.’ The third song, ‘Love,’ is the most intimate of the songs. Here the poet reflects on his relationship with God while the choir hums the chant melody, ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ – a chant traditionally associated with Maundy Thursday services, which celebrate Christ’s last supper with his apostles before his death on the cross the following day. The fourth song is for baritone solo and features a simple folk-like melody. Here the word ‘come’ reflects both the poet’s call to God and God’s call to the poet. The final song, ‘Antiphon,’ sung by the choir alone, is a triumphant hymn of praise that is punctuated with the refrain ‘Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King!’



Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

The second of twelve children, Joseph Haydn spent his early childhood in Rohrau, a little village about thirty-five miles southeast of Vienna. As a young child, he took violin, organ, and harpsichord lessons. In 1739 or 1740 he was recruited to sing at the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) in Vienna. He remained at the cathedral choir school for the next ten years. Haydn later remarked, “I sang soprano both at St Stephan’s and at court to great applause.” At the choir school he was taught the art of singing, the harpsichord and the violin. Haydn’s decade at the Stephansdom undoubtedly had a profound influence on his future as a composer. Haydn biographer James Webster writes that while at Stephansdom “Haydn rehearsed and sang in performances of the greatest art-music then being produced in Catholic Europe, amid the pomp and splendour of the cathedral and court of an imperial capital. This experience…fundamentally shaped his musical intellect even without formal training in composition.” Haydn’s soprano voice “broke” in his late teens and shortly thereafter he was dismissed from the choir school. Haydn wrote:

When my voice finally broke, for eight whole years I was forced to eke out a wretched existence by teaching young people. Many geniuses are ruined by this miserable [need to earn their] daily bread, because they lack time to study. This could well have happened to me; I would never have achieved what little I have done, had I not carried on with my zeal for composition during the night. I composed diligently, but not quite correctly, until I finally had the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the famous Porpora (who was in Vienna at the time).[3]

During the freelancing period of his late teens and early twenties, Haydn devoured J. J. Fux’s counterpoint instruction book, Gradus ad Parnasum. Haydn clearly held Fux’s treatise in high esteem as he used it in teaching his own students – including the young Beethoven!

In 1757 Haydn was appointed Kapellmeister (music director) at the court of Count Morzin, where he led the small court orchestra. Haydn also composed his first symphonies for this ensemble. In 1760 Haydn married Maria Anna Theresia Keller. The union was an unhappy one and led to infidelities on both sides. No children resulted from the marriage.

In 1761 Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Paul Anton, head of the immensely wealthy Esterházy family. Haydn was in charge of all instrumental music as well as secular vocal and stage music. (Kapellmeister Gregor Warner was in charge of sacred vocal music.) He was also responsible for maintaining the musical archives and instruments, performing as a singing instructor and as a soloist, and composing. Upon the death of Kapellmeister Gregor Warner in 1766, Haydn was elevated to Kapellmeister. Though the duties were immense, the position provided an outstanding opportunity for a young musician. Haydn remained in the employment of the Esterházy family for the remainder of his life.

Under Nicolaus I, Haydn focused on the composition of operas, symphonies, and chamber music. In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract. The new contract allowed him to write for others and to sell his work to publishers; previously all of his compositions belonged to his employer. These new terms led to increasing fame throughout Europe.

Prince Nicolaus I died in 1790 and was succeed by his son Anton, who dismissed most of the court musicians. Although Anton retained Haydn at a reduced salary, he had little need for Haydn’s services and agreed to let Haydn travel. Haydn’s music was already hugely popular in London and in 1791 he made his first trip to England, staying until 1792. English audiences received Haydn enthusiastically. While there he composed and conducted a number of works, including the first six of his twelve ‘London’ symphonies. He also heard productions of several of Handel’s oratorios, which became the stimulus for his first oratorio, The Creation. Haydn returned for a second London visit in 1794. Haydn’s two stays in London were immensely happy ones; he was greatly admired and appreciated by audiences there. The trips also proved to be quite lucrative: He reportedly earned the equivalent of more than twenty years’ salary at the Esterházy court.

When Prince Anton died in 1794, Haydn became entirely free of the Esterházy court. Although he considered remaining in London, Anton’s son Nicolaus II revived the Esterházy musical establishment and asked Haydn to return as Kapellmeister. Haydn took up the position in 1795 on a part-time basis. His primary duty to Nicolaus II was to compose a mass each year to celebrate the nameday of Nicolaus II’s wife, Princess Maria. In all, Haydn composed six of these ‘late’ masses. During this final period of his life, Haydn spent his summers with the Esterházys in Eisenstadt, but he lived primarily at his private residence in Vienna. In addition to the masses, he also composed two oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801). By late 1803 Haydn’s health had deteriorated, making him physically incapable of composing. He died in 1809 at age 77.

Over the course of his lifetime Haydn composed over 750 works including fourteen masses, three oratorios, 53 piano sonatas, 108 symphonies, and over 80 string quartets.

Missa in tempore belli (‘Paukenmesse’)

The French Revolution, begun in 1789 and lasting a decade, was a time of great turmoil in Europe. By the summer of 1796 Napoleon’s army seized control of Italy, driving the Austrian army out of northern Italy. Haydn began composing the second of his six ‘late’ masses in the autumn of 1796 in Eisenstadt and completed it later that year in Vienna. Haydn’s title for the work, Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War), reflects the Austrian people’s fear of a French invasion. Despite the title ascribed by Haydn, the work is also often referred to by the nickname Paukenmesse (pauken is the German word for timpani) due to the prominent timpani solo in the ‘Agnus Dei’ movement.

Like all six of the ‘late’ masses, the Missa in tempore belli was composed to celebrate the nameday of Princess Maria, the wife of his employer, Prince Nicolaus II. It was first performed on December 26, 1796 at the Piarist Church in Vienna with Haydn conducting. The first performance for Princess Maria’s nameday took place nearly a year later in Eisenstadt on September 29, 1797.

The work was originally scored for pairs of trumpets, oboes, bassoons, as well as timpani, strings, continuo (organ), and voices. In two movements (‘Qui tollis’ and ‘Et incarnatus est’), the two trumpet players played horn. This instrumentation is what Haydn had available for the Eisenstadt performance. However, additional sets of parts for two horns, two clarinets, and flute part appeared from the beginning. Scholars have suggested that these additional instruments may have played in the first performance at the Piarist Church in Vienna, where Haydn had access to a full complement of Viennese musicians. Today’s performance will feature the expanded instrumentation.

The ‘Kyrie’ opens like a symphony with a slow introduction that is a plea for mercy. This leads to the principal section, which contains a single theme that is first heard in the soprano solo. This theme is developed, returning in the chorus sopranos, then in the alto solo in the dominant key, and finally is passed around among the choral voices back in the home key. The three-part structure of the Kyrie text (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison) often leads composers to set these three text phrases in three sections of more or less equal duration. Here, however, Haydn sets the Christe eleison text in just four bars. Clearly, Haydn is placing more emphasis on God the Father (Kyrie) than on God the Son (Christe).

Haydn divides the ‘Gloria’ into three separate movements that are structured much like a miniature symphony: vivace-adagio-allegro (fast-slow-fast). The outer two movements are punctuated by the brass and timpani and radiate the festive splendor that is inherent in the text. The middle ‘Qui tollis’ movement features a beautiful lyric melody introduced by a cello soloist and then sung by the bass soloist.

Haydn divides the lengthy Credo text, like the Gloria text, into several movements. The opening ‘Credo in unum Deum’ movement is a fugue that features ‘telescoping’ text; rather than each voice part entering on the same line of text, as is standard in vocal fugues, each entrance features a new line of text. While perhaps hindering textual clarity for the listener, this compositional device allows Haydn to set large amounts of text using a relatively short amount of musical material. At ‘Et incarnatus est,’ Haydn switches to the parallel minor key. The vocal soloists begin the movement, but are interrupted by a dramatic forte entrance of the chorus. The pain of Jesus’ crucifixion is illustrated by dissonant chords, which slowly descend to the lowest register of the voices as Christ’s body is buried. Haydn depicts the triumphal resurrection of Christ with an ascending allegro major-mode melody. The brilliant fugue on the text ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ concludes the Credo.

Like the ‘Kyrie’, the ‘Sanctus’ opens with a slow introduction which is followed by an allegro principal section. Haydn begins the ‘Benedictus’ with an extended instrumental introduction in the minor mode. In the Viennese Mass tradition, the ‘Benedictus’ is often sung by a soloist. Here Haydn follows that tradition, but varies it by featuring the whole solo quartet. The movement eventually shifts to the major mode, and the choir enters at the very end on the last half of the ‘Osanna’ section.

If any movement of this work is indicative of ‘in tempore belli,’ it would be the ‘Agnus Dei.’ Like the opening ‘Kyrie,’ this final movement also opens with a slow, reverent prayer for mercy. However, the timpani solo here lends a sense of foreboding. Haydn told his biographer Georg Griesinger that he wanted the timpani to sound ‘as if one heard the enemy approaching in the distance.’ The mood changes dramatically with the trumpet fanfares and almost dance-like nature of the ‘dona nobis pacem’ (grant us peace) text that concludes the work.

[1] Jerrold Northrop Moore, Vaughan Williams: a life in photographs (Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 1992), 26.

[2] John Bawden, “Five Mystical Songs – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 -1958)”, British Choirs on the Net, accessed April 5, 2015,

[3]James Webster and Georg Feder. “Haydn, Joseph.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 15, 2015,

© 2015 Michael Driscoll

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