A personal reflection on the performance

of Joseph Haydn”s NELSON MASS

in St George”s Cathedral at 8.00p.m.

on 17th October 2014

Soloists: Goitsemang Lehobye, Teresa de Wit;

Khanyiso Gwenxane; Siyabulela Ntale

The Symphony Choir of Cape Town

Conductor: Alexander Fokkens


The penny only dropped on the very morning of the concert when, in a moment of leisure, I Googled the Haydn Nelson Mass simply so that, even at that late stage of preparation, I could immerse myself as far as possible in the spirit and occasion of its composition.

In doing so I suddenly became aware of the fact that the original title given by Haydn to this work was not the “NELSON” Mass but the “MISSA IN ANGUSTIIS” – Mass for troubled times.

It would be difficult to describe just how this surprise insight affected me throughout the evening”s performance. The moment conductor Alexander stepped onto the podium I sensed deepdown within me that he would bring this Mass to life in a way that would reveal just how awesomely relevant both titles were to our present times in South Africa.

With the agitation of the opening bars I became mindful of the privilege I had of ministering to political prisoners both on Robben Island in the 1960″s and later in Pollsmoor Prison in the 1980″s during the turbulent days of the apartheid regime.

With the burst of the powerful opening Kyrie eleison I instantly felt the music transporting me casino pa natet to the presence of Nelson Mandela in prison, and how, over the years of his time in prison, the very structure and substance of the Christian Liturgical Mass would fashion his growth towards the statesman the whole nation – and, indeed, the world – came to love and revere.

The understandable angst with which he began his incarceration was deeply aggravated by the spiritual drought brought on by separation from family and friends. But it soon became obvious that in the monthly visits of chaplains to the prison he would find a new inner strength and vision and resolve empowering him.

With this singing of the heart-rending Kyrie – the cry of mercy to the Lord – I could sense the liberating experience Nelson felt of God”s mercy towards him and all that had gone to bring him to the present moment in prison. And then the spiritual dawning of a deep desire for that mercy to touch and heal the hearts of his oppressors, of those who had fashioned the apartheid regime that had so dehumanised himslef and so many of his people..

As Alexander brought the score to life via the orchestra, the soloists, the choir – an awareness grew within me with the unfolding of each successive movement of the “troubled times” during which Nelson”s incarceration took place, times fraught with fearful anxieties and uncertainties. And I became aware that, as Nelson”s understanding of God”s greatness and power began to blossom in his heart, so too the initial anger would subside and a fresh vision for a peaceful and all-embracing future through the mercy of God would begin to take root in his spirit..a new brightening spirit of hope. And so, following on the breaking Kyrie, comes a burst of awesome trust in God in the brightening Gloria carrying with it a new and incredible hope and confidence that in the end all would be well, all manner of things would be well – and all to the glory of God!

And so with the unfolding of this inspired and inspiring Mass there burgeoned an unexpected experience of the relevance of this work to our more recent history and times, encapsulated in the Presidency of Nelson Mandela…

With the concluding robust Dona nobis pacem – Grant us peace – the work comes to a triumphant resolution to the “troubled times” that lay as a burden on Haydn”s heart as he conceived this spiritual masterpiece. And, for this singer, on Friday 17th October 2014 in St George”s Cathedral it gained a fresh and wondrous relevance as a truly NELSON MASS!

Harry Wiggett

Fish Hoek

18th October 2014

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