Haydn’s Catholic Spirit

Note: This article is part of a projected series on Catholicism and art (primarily, but not limited to, music and painting).

“Whenever I think of God I can only conceive of Him as a Being infinitely great and infinitely good. This last quality of the divine nature inspires me with such confidence and joy that I could have written even a Miserere in tempo allegro.” – Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

When I was about ten years old I heard Joseph Haydn’s Missa brevis in F performed by a small choir, organ, and violins during Sunday Mass in my parish church.  The experience awakened my senses to the beauty of great music and the even greater beauty of great music performed as part of the liturgy. The choice of Haydn was a happy one, for Haydn’s music is infused with Catholicism – although his status as one of the most thoroughly Catholic composers is, I think, all too little recognized both by classical music audiences and Catholic believers.  Nor are his religious masterpieces performed nearly as frequently as they deserve – in Catholic churches or otherwise.  I hope in this brief sketch to give a taste of Haydn’s religious sensibility and how it informs a great body of music that is capable of enriching our faith.


St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, where Haydn spent his formative years

Historically speaking, Haydn (1732-1809) straddled the pre-and post-Enlightenment – that is to say, the church-centered artistic outlook of the Ages of Faith and the more secular outlook that took hold after about 1800. The great composers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Palestrina, Dufay, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd) were men of faith who created the bulk of their work for the Church.  Bach was one of the last of this line – a composer who insisted that music was created for “the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” A sea change began with the Enlightenment: as the center of musical life moved from the church and the courtly palace to the public concert hall, a gradual secularization took hold. While the composers of the eighteenth century still wrote sacred music as a normal part of their job, the composers of the subsequent Romantic era set up a new ideal: no longer music for the glory of God, but music as self-expression (an aesthetic view that is still very much with us today).  To be sure, sacred music continued to be written, but it was no longer central; and being a composer did not automatically mark one out as one with definite religious commitments.

Coming of age during this transitional period, Haydn remained faithful to the old religious worldview.  He could hardly avoid doing so, steeped as he was in the Catholic atmosphere of rural Austria and apprenticed as a choirboy from the age of six at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he learned the elements of his craft.  Some of Haydn’s earliest compositions were sacred ones, composed near the end of his apprenticeship with the choir (one of them is the Missa brevis mentioned above).  By the time of his death in 1809, Haydn had amassed a sacred output including 14 settings of the Mass, 2 religious oratorios (including his most famous work, The Creation), motets, offertories, responses, Marian antiphons, a Stabat Mater, and an extraordinary Lenten work, The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.

By all accounts Haydn possessed a devout, simple, and unclouded Catholic faith.  The precise flavor of this faith was cheerful, robust, clear-headed and objective. “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully” was his stated credo.  This cheerful attitude translated into religious music that, for many listeners of the day, seemed positively un-ecclesiastical in its gaiety and lightheartedness. (As with Shakespeare’s plays, some critics were disturbed with the “mixture of serious and comic” in Haydn’s music.) A good example is the Kyrie eleison from the Missa brevis in F.  Haydn sets the chorus’ words “Lord, have mercy” to a bright folk-like tune accompanied by dancing rococo figures in the violins – a far cry from the weighty, penitential music that the Kyrie usually calls forth from composers.



It would be a mistake to explain such music as Haydn’s giving in to the secular spirit of the Enlightenment.  The Haydn scholar Karl Geiringer states perceptively that “Haydn made hardly any distinction between sacred and secular music.  As a painter of the Renaissance period did not hesitate to give to the Madonna the features of some girl he knew personally, so Haydn applied the principles of instrumental music to his Mass by starting and ending with an allegro” (that is to say, a fast cheerful movement).  We are coming here upon a deeply Catholic sensibility – one that recognizes the wholeness and sacrality of the entire created order, made by God and redeemed by Christ.  Musically, such a sensibility translates into a style that combines the sacred and secular in an exuberant synthesis.  Such was Haydn’s religious aesthetic.  His Masses and other sacred compositions don’t conform to our stereotypes of “churchy” music: they are filled with good humor, geniality, and sanity just like his symphonies and string quartets – and often borrow from instrumental or operatic style in their quest to express the emotional content of the faith.  They are an outpouring of the composer’s childlike wonder and what one writer called his “pious optimism.”

But there’s more to Haydn than this sunny disposition; he could tear the heart asunder with holy grief, too.  Take The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, which Haydn wrote in 1783 for a Holy Week service in Cadiz, Spain.  This remarkable work consists of seven instrumental movements corresponding to Jesus’ seven last sayings from the Cross, and ending with a movement depicting the earthquake that followed Jesus’ death. (In the original performance, the seven movements were played in between sermons on the Seven Words.) Haydn fit the opening musical phrases of each movement to the Latin translation of Jesus’ sayings, so that the words are subliminally present although not literally heard.  Haydn later added voices to the work, but it’s the original instrumental version – and in particular, the version for string quartet – that is best known today.  Even without the benefit of text, Haydn creates musical pictures of piercing poignancy.  The music portrays both the acute suffering of Christ on the Cross (often in music that sounds startlingly modern and angular) and the sweet consolation of such episodes as Jesus forgiving the Good Thief, gifting his Mother to St. John, and commending his soul to God at the moment of his death.  The work demonstrates again the catholicity of Haydn’s art in its transference of a secular instrumental style to a religious purpose.  Thus Haydn creates an almost inconceivable genre: sacred instrumental music.



As wonderful as The Seven Last Words is, Haydn’s most famous religious work (albeit not a specifically Catholic one) is his oratorio The Creation. (For background on the oratorio genre – a fascinating history with strong Catholic connections – see here.) The story goes that when Haydn was looking for a subject for an oratorio, a friend of his pointed to the Bible and said, “There! Take that, and begin at the beginning.” The Creation is infused with a Haydnesque quality which one writer identified as “peasant realism” and which could be linked to the “sacramental realism” of Catholicism.  As the seven days of creation are told, Haydn depicts birds, animals, thunderstorms and other natural phenomena through his music with a relish that speaks to a human, everyday joy in the created world.  And in the famous orchestral introduction, “Description of Chaos,” Haydn depicts the resolution of chaos into created order, with a blindingly brilliant C major chord on the words “And there was light.”



Reading the biographical material on Haydn, one senses that for him the very act of composing was founded upon prayer and confident trust in God.  His faith not only saw him through many difficulties in his life but allowed him to see his work as a composer with a sane, rational perspective that was often lost in later times.  Accounts of Haydn working on The Creation provide us some of the best day-to-day testimony of his deep personal faith. “I rise early,” he wrote, “and as soon as I am dressed, I fall on my knees and pray to God and the Holy Virgin that I may succeed again today.” Later, as an old and sick man who was no longer able to compose, a visitor confirmed that he spent most of his day in prayer, particularly the rosary.  Like Bach, Haydn’s manuscripts became acts of dedication to God; he began them with the inscription “In nomine Domini” (in the name of the Lord) and ended them with “Laus Deo” (Praise be to God).  Set against the narcissistic excesses of later eras, Haydn’s artistic stance – the humble attitude of a medieval craftsman – comes like a refreshing cup of water.

Haydn was, by all accounts, a man who loved life and found the world and everything in it touched by a good and gracious God.  His religious music was an expression of that inner nature, using the full resources of the art to give voice to a concrete, human, incarnate faith.  Yet free from excessive emotionalism or subjectivity, his music also expressed a pure “joy in creation” – a pleasure in the lucid rational ordering of the notes and a delight in communicating this order to the audience.  By rights Haydn’s works ought to be recognized as a rich treasure of Catholicism as well as a cornerstone of classical music.  As we continue to debate in the Catholic world about what music to use in the liturgy, we could do no better than to give a glance back to “Papa Haydn” for inspiration.


A “Top 10” of Haydn’s sacred compositions:

Missa Brevis in F major (1749)

Stabat Mater (1767)

Missa Cellensis (also known as the St. Cecilia Mass) (1766-73)

Il ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias) (1775) – Haydn’s first oratorio

The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross (orchestra, string quartet and choral versions) (1785)

The Creation (1798)

Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War, also known as Paukenmesse or Tympani Mass) (1796)

Missa in angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass) (1798)

Theresienmesse (Theresa Mass, named for Empress Maria Theresa) (1799)

Harmoniemesse (Wind-Band Mass) (1802) – Haydn’s last major composition

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