Mozart | Mass in C Minor

No Western composer demonstrated a more Shakespearean range of emotion than Mozart — from the comedy of self-deception to tragic despair, from pleasure in worldly comforts to heroic defiance of convention, from supernatural terror to spiritual rhapsody. His most ravishing music looks inside the soul as deeply as art can.”[1]

To celebrate the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the city of Salzburg, Austria, in which he spent the first 24 years of his life, resounded with his music in performances by world-famous musicians and conductors, including the unprecedented staging of all 22 operas in a single summer. The irony lost in this well-deserved commemoration is that the honoree left the city on bad terms in 1781 to make Vienna his permanent home. Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo had reduced and simplified music in reforms intended to create the atmosphere of a “people’s church,” and he severely constricted the concertizing travels of the Mozart family. Mozart himself left without permission from either his father, Leopold, or the archbishop and found a path-breaking freelance career in Vienna — public and private piano performances, subscription concerts, private students, commissions, and publication of his music.

Nor did Mozart receive his father’s blessing when he married Constanze Weber in 1782. Following the birth of their first child[2] a year later, the couple made the week-long, 200-mile journey to Salzburg, only to receive frosty treatment from Leopold and Wolfgang’s sister, Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) during their entire stay. Mozart coped by making a little music. He found his friend Michael Haydn (Joseph’s younger brother) ill and overdue in his commission for six duets, and he came to the rescue, writing the last two duets in Michael’s name and style. And to please (if not win over) his father, he directed a performance of his partially completed Mass in C Minor, a work he had vowed to write for Constanze when she was ill. The soprano solos, which his wife sang, were a showcase for her voice, no doubt intended to dispel Leopold’s doubts about her musicianship.

Archbishop Colloredo’s stipulation for short, simple church music would not have permitted a work with the scope and grandeur of the Mass in C Minor. Oddly, as far as we know, Mozart never finished it. In the first publication in 1840, only the Kyrie and Gloria are complete, while the score includes only two fragments of the Credo (“Patrem omnipotentem” and “Et incarnatus est”); the Sanctus and Benedictus both lack one of their double choruses; and there is no Agnus Dei. Speculations abound as to what might have been the reason for the gaps. Yet this Grand Mass stands as “a magnificent torso — grandiose, dramatic, and powerfully expressive.”[3]

Mozart’s grip of the fugal and contrapuntal techniques of Bach and Handel, whose music the Imperial Court Librarian, Van Swieten, had recently introduced to him, balances with the quintessentially Mozartean vocal solos and sonorous orchestral writing.

The Kyrie is the only movement of this mass written in the key of C minor. This movement begins with solemn depth, using the full force of the orchestra to lead to the soaring soprano solo. Given that Mozart was known to compose within the capabilities of his performers, we can marvel, in retrospect, at his wife Constanze’s gifted virtuosity, range, and easy coloratura in the opening “Christe eleison.”

The Gloria extends toward the heavens with a burst of trumpets and drums over the four-part chorus. The inner movements of this cantata, in a variety of predominately minor keys, gather force from one to two to three soloists and from four- to five- to eight-part choruses. The counterpoint and continuo textures of the soprano duet in “Domine Deus” (and later in the italianate trio in “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus”) expertly reflect Handel’s influence yet magically transform into Mozart’s own musical language. In “Qui tollis,” dotted rhythms and a repetitive bass line portray the tension of a heart caught up in life’s trials, pleading for mercy. “Cum sancto spiritu” returns again and again to masterful fugal action, accompanied by exuberant string passages.

The Credo, also a cantata, opens with a burst as does the Kyrie, but this time the choral proclamation is without trumpets and drums. The lively “Credo in unum Deum” depicts a confident community on a mutual spiritual path. Engaging woodwinds introduce and underscore the breathtakingly transcendent soprano solo, “Et incarnatus est.”

The Sanctus, with its eight-part chorus, is an editorial reconstruction of about half of the surviving choral parts, yet it seems true to Mozart’s intentions. This movement portrays the exciting ideal of universal human brotherhood that was part of Mozart’s era, the Age of Enlightenment — an ideal he sought in Freemasonry.

The Benedictus encompasses both personal quest and timeless unity, weaving the four soloists together in expert counterpoint and ending with an elegant, joyful double chorus singing “Hosanna.”

With its magnificent and mighty choruses, sensuous and ornate solos, large orchestral and solo instrumental segments, the Mass in C Minor was unlike any church music of its time and took its own ground apart from the “dumb it down” restrictions of the era’s “enlightened” despots, such as Colloredo in Salzburg and Joseph II in Vienna. Mozart set the unfinished work aside, but in 1785 he reused the Kyrie and Gloria as part of his oratorio Davidde penitente, K 469.

During the Enlightenment, Cartesian rationalism asserted that true knowledge comes from the mind alone, not the senses. Human reason asserted its triumph over the previous century’s massive witch-hunts and religious/imperial wars. It was an era that declared music to be a decorative art. Composers were expected to meet the rising population of middle-class listeners on their own ground, not puzzle them with complexity. With such advances as Newtonian science, Gluck’s more static and intellectual music overshadowed Mozart’s heartfelt music. Mozart’s popularity declined even as his creative powers increased. No one afforded him a post and, for many years, he was forced to beg “loans” from friends. Only with the premiere of Die Zauberflöte in 1791 did he regain popularity, but by then he was worn out and fatally ill.

Mozart’s lack of popularity aside, his Masonic brotherhood sought his unsurpassed creativity for compositions that are still used in the ceremonies of Freemasonry, as well as for works performed for public charity concerts. A few years before his death, Mozart and his father were reconciled when Leopold visited Vienna. For his father’s initiation into his lodge, Mozart wrote one of his most beautiful Masonic works, Gesellenreise, K 468.  The lyrics embody the idea that life is a journey of love for all humankind toward Wisdom and Light.

— by Carol Talbeck


[1] Music critic Lloyd Schwartz on National Public Radio, January 25, 2006.

[2] Constanze and Wolfgang had six children, of whom four died in infancy.

[3] “Mozart and the Church,” by Steven Ledbetter, in notes with the Denon 1992 recording.