Orchestral Mass at St. Paul’s: Haydn’s Nelson Mass and a Visit to the Wallace Collection

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Tiziano Vecellio, Perseus and Andromeda, 1556, The Wallace Collection.

Tiziano Vecellio, Perseus and Andromeda, 1556, The Wallace Collection.

During the Reign of Terror, refined Parisian ladies attended balls wearing a thin red ribbon around their necks in place of jewels, to signify the guillotine in a graphic way. (I forget if they were pro or con.) Mass executions and blood in the street are too high a price to pay for getting rid of the clergy. Inattention will do. Today, Bastille Day, is an ironic one for reviewing Mass at St. Paul’s, which I attended yesterday. It was a special orchestral Mass centered on Haydn’s glorious “Nelson” Mass.

Sitting through a full Anglican service, even with Haydn for inspiration, made me realize that I could never be President, not as long as regular church attendance was required. (It’s sadistically satisfying that the Presidents I hate have to endure this torment.) A beam of sunlight landed on me from one of the high windows of the dome, but it didn’t lift the gloom. To be candid, I never feel more outside the human flock than in church. Yesterday, when the people around me took advantage of the place in the program that says “All may exchange a sign of peace,” their murmurs of “May the peace of the Lord be with you” startled me, and I turned red when one parishioner gave me “the kiss of the Lord” (as he called it) on my cheek. I thought a sign of peace meant the peace sign.

Haydn’s late Masses are among his greatest works and most certainly are the crowning glory of his vocal writing, for which he did not have Mozart’s gift when it came to opera. Only The Creation soars to Mozartean heights (I like that oratorio even more than Haydn’s church music, naturally). Haydn was temperamentally an optimist, and although I haven’t read about his religious beliefs, I imagine them to be like Thomas Jefferson’s, humane, deistic, and non-dogmatic. What would the modern world be like if that peaceable ethic had prevailed instead of revolution? In Haydn’s benign orbit, guillotines are inconceivable. The performance at St. Paul’s largely got lost in the same Grand Canyon acoustics I mentioned regarding the Mahler Eighth, but the cathedral choir was excellent, the City of London Sinfonia did very well by the orchestral part, and among the solo quartet, the soprano Rebecca Outram made Haydn’s sparkling coloratura writing seem effortless; he imagined a blessed angel, and she was fit for the role.

Eighteenth -century France came more directly to mind when I trotted over to the Wallace Collection at Hertford House (which the English mispronounce as Hart-ford). Wallace is the family name of the Marquess of Hertford, including three generations of stupendous art collectors. The fourth Marquess had a bastard son, Richard Wallace, who donated the mansion on leafy Manchester Square to the nation in 1897, along with the treasure trove inside. “Treasure trove” is too banal – one is overwhelmed by what Croesus could buy, three times over, and any one room, stuffed to bursting with paintings, furniture, bibelots, armor, porcelain, drawings, miniatures – in short, everything but Caesar’s head suspended in formaldehyde à la Damien Hirst — provides ample excuse for exhaustion. The Wallace Collection isn’t one room but a dozen, on two floors, so the only sensible strategy is to go a dozen times. The visitors attempting to see everything at once exited the building glassy-eyed and bewildered.

The French angle is that the Wallaces focused on Boucher, Chardin, Greuze, Claude Lorrain, and lesser lights whose porcelain-skinned beauties, Arcadian landscapes, satin furbelows, and Elysian conceits seem to derive from creatures as alien to me as Mongols, but moving in the opposite direction, toward an aesthetic vanishing point. Only Chardin appeals to me, and the Wallace had a small room in the basement exhibiting several exquisite examples. The self-portrait of Rembrandt on the top floor, age about twenty with an arch expression (as if he didn’t care to be surrounded by so many powder puffs) heartened me. As I left, a guide downstairs was gathering a group of tourists from Delhi to lecture on a particularly fine Mogul sword chased with gold. The Wallaces owned several hundred swords to go with their piles of assorted armory, all beautifully preserved and of course cleaned of blood stains. I don’t like anything martial, and reminders that we live in tempore belli sent my heart sinking again, all the way down Oxford Street and the horde of Sunday shoppers bearing a sea of yellow bags from Selfridge’s.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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