Sacred music is passion for W&M professor

James Armstrong, professor of musicology and director of choirs at the College of William and Mary, must be doing something right.

Under Armstrong’s direction, the college choirs have been selected to perform at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, at the funeral of Ambassador Pamela Harriman, at the National Cathedral, in Washington, DC.; they gave a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 and conducted international tours that included Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, South Africa and others.

Earning, in each country, international recognition for William and Mary.

Armstrong is known as an expert on 18th-century and early 19th-century Central European sacred music and African American spirituals. During his recent sabbatical, he compiled a thematic catalogue of the complete Princely Esterhazy sacred music collection. It is housed at the Esterhazy Castle in Eisenstadt, Austria, and the National Szechenyi Library, in Budapest, Hungary.

The Esterhazy sacred music collection comprises of some 2,800 pieces. Armstrong started his project cataloguing and researching the history of the compositions in 1999, and completed the on-site research in 2011. He is preparing it for publication.

“The purpose of this work is to make a reliable research tool for scholars so they can begin to study one of the most important aristocratic collections of sacred music in Central Europe,” Armstrong said in a recent interview with the Gazette.

He explained that Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy (1765-1833) had only one rival in the area of sacred music collecting and commissioning: Empress Maria Therese (1792-1807) who was a very good amateur singer and a real connoisseur. Nevertheless, Nikolaus’ collection of sacred music exceeds the Empress’ collection in quality and quantity.

“My hope,” Armstrong said, “is that in the future, scholars will be able to write a history of sacred music of the late 18th and early 19th century that will begin to redress the imbalance of attention paid to secular music of the time — symphony, opera, chamber music — by earlier scholars. This is an infinitely rich and, for the most part, entirely unknown repertory.”

While cataloguing the collection, Armstrong didn’t leave all the historical research to future scholars. He notes the earliest surviving church music dates from the first decades of the 18th century, shortly after the establishment of a permanent church music ensemble at the Esterhazy court.

“Over the years, many musicians in the employ of the Esterhazy court enriched the sacred music collection with their compositions,” he said. “It is largely through Nikolaus’ initiative that Joseph Haydn dedicated his last significant compositional efforts to sacred music. He also commissioned work from the most prominent composers of church music.”

Armstrong cites Esterhazy documents from financial archives that provide researchers with important information on financing music at court, such as contracts, edicts, bills for copying and for reimbursement of expenses and offers to the court of music for sale.

As passionate collectors, Empress Maria Therese and Prince Nikolaus II were an important source of income to composers, who were often living hand-to-mouth.

“We have found records of a composer, Theodor Freiherr von Schacht, who created a Mass on commission for the Empress in 1805. Then sold the same piece to Nikolaus with a title page indicating it was composed expressly for him in 1806,” Armstrong said. “The same composer composed six Masses on commission from Napoleon in 1809 and sold at least two of those to Nikolaus a year later under a pseodomyn.”

Armstrong, concluded with an insight, “As you can see, sacred music has many stories to tell, not just about the music itself but more generally about musical life and patronage in this era.”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place”, the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and

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