When Joseph Haydn wrote his “Missa in Angustiis”, Napoleon Bonaparte was causing anguish in much of Europe, and the composer’s own health was a potential source of distress.
Now the music of the Austrian, who soothed souls in 1798, will once again bring comfort – this time to covid-19-weary Arkansans.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Trinity Cathedral Choir, joined by members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, will perform the work in Little Rock.
The orchestra members will also perform “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (German for “A Little Night Music”).
The concert at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is free and listeners wearing masks are welcome.
“Missa in Angustiis” is Latin for “Mass for troubled times” or “Mass in times of anxiety”. The word “angustiis” can be translated, in various ways, as trials, tribulations, difficulties, tightness or narrowness.
Starting out, as he did, the month after Britain’s victory over France in the Battle of the Nile, he eventually became known as Lord Nelson Mass, a reference to the victorious Rear Admiral of the battle, Horatio Nelson.
Due to downsizing by Haydn benefactors, the Esterhazy family, the Mass featured a scaled-down orchestra.
Nonetheless, it became one of his most heralded works.
“The tribunal Haydn was working for at the time was having financial difficulties, so they let all their wind players go, and they just kept the strings, the trumpet and the timpani,” said Colin MacKnight, director of the cathedral music.
Friday’s orchestra will include 14 musicians, MacKnight said. They will be joined by 25 to 30 members of the choir.
“It will take up pretty much all the space we have,” he said.
The mass is sung in Latin.
Haydn composed 14 masses, the oldest dating from the 1750s. The last six masses were written between 1796 and 1802.
“These are some of his best works. They’re fantastic,” MacKnight said.
The mass is long, with six movements, so there is a lot for performers to learn.
“We started rehearsing it immediately after our little Christmas break,” MacKnight said. “It’s pretty quick to learn a big piece like this, but they do a great job.”
It takes almost three quarters of an hour to go from the beginning of the Kyrie (Greek meaning Lord) to the final notes of the Agnes Dei (Latin meaning Lamb of God).
“They had long church services back then, so doing a 40-minute mass, liturgically, wasn’t a problem,” MacKnight said. “Nowadays people might disagree with that [length].”
During the mass, the singers as well as the musicians will have their chance to shine.
“It’s worth quoting Anna Squire, who will be the soprano soloist,” MacKnight said. “Haydn’s masses always call for solos for every voice part — soprano, alto, tenor, bass. But in this particular mass, the soprano solo is very much in its own league.”
“Anna is going to be the star of this concert,” he said. “Every move has fireworks that she will sing.”
Squire, the founder of Opera in the Rock and professional singer, described the “Lord Nelson Mass” as a challenge.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s super fun,” she said. “There’s a lot of really floaty parts, but then a lot of really neat runs that take you up to the sky and back down.”
“It’s really beautiful. … I hope a lot of people will come,” she said.