picture: Lord Nelson before Trafalgar
Precisely how the Nelson Mass became so called, when and by whom shall probably never be known. What is at least clear is that within a month of the Battle of the Nile on august 1, 1798. Haydn had completed a Mass in D Minor, and within months of the Battle of Trafalgar ( october 21, 1805) that same mass had become known as the Nelson Mass.
Amongst his other court duties Haydn was required to produce a new mass each year for the name-day of Princess Esterhazy. Two years previously, in the summer of 1798, Haydn had composed a mass in the key of D minor. He could not have known of the Battle of the Nile until weeks after the mass was finished, so the mass was certainly not written for that Nelson victory. The original manuscript of that mass has neither title nor motto, and bears nothing but the pious formulae ‘In nomine Domini’ at the start and ‘Laus Deo’ at the end.
However, both the Mass in D Minor (probably) and the Te Deum (certainly) were performed to honour Nelson during his visit to Eisenstadt in 1800, together with a brief cantata, Lines from the Battle of the Nile, which Haydn composed for Lady Hamilton. Nelson and Haydn apparently became friends – some accounts tell that Nelson gave Haydn a gold watch he had won at Aboukir Bay, in return for the pen that was used to compose Lady Hamilton’s cantata. It is likely that the name Nelson Mass began being applied to this piece some time after this event, although the name was never used by Haydn himself.