Haydn composed his St. Nicolas Mass in 1772 for his employer Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy I’s name’s day. This was not the normal practice, and the mass was composed under unusual circumstances.
There are some signs of turbulence under the surface at this time. It is of course so easy to draw false conclusions from a modern perspective, particularly since in Haydn’s time it was not usual for composers to give expression to their own personal feelings in their work. But in 1772 Haydn wrote some unusually dark works. Of the five symphonies he wrote that year, three are in a minor key. Given that out of his 104 symphonies only 10 are in minor keys, this would seem to be a significant concentration of dark moods. The St. Nicholas Mass, which is in the gentle key of G major, is not without its own particular dark swerves into the minor.
1772 was the year he composed his Farewell Symphony (in F sharp minor). It was customary for the whole Esterhazy court to migrate from its base in Eisenstadt to the Esterhazy palace in Hungary for the summer. Haydn and the leader of the orchestra could take their wives with them; sadly Haydn’s wife would probably have preferred remaining in Eisenstadt, or better still in Vienna. Meanwhile all the other musicians had to leave their wives and families at home in Eisenstadt. Frequently they didn’t return home until December, which caused frictions.
This particular year there was much unrest amongst the musicians because of this and Haydn famously staged a walk-out in the Farewell Symphony, leaving just the leader and Haydn himself playing the violin at the end. Prince Nikolaus took the hint and the court returned to Eisenstadt early.
Haydn quickly composed the St. Nicholas Mass in time for the prince’s name’s day. H.C. Robbins Landon makes the suggestion that the St Nicholas Mass may have been written as a ‘kind of surprise congratulation’ for the prince’s generosity. He must have been pleased: it is a present of great charm.