Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Promise Broken? Weaving the threads of Mozart's C Minor Mass

Wolfgang Mozart 
Portrait by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange

By the end of the 1770s, Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791) had become increasingly restless at being in the cultural purgatory that was Salzburg at the time. He had weathered several contretemps about his employment there under the imperious Archbishop Heironymus Colloredo, and after a celebrated argument and a figurative and literal “kick in the pants,” moved permanently to Vienna in June, 1781. 

As arguably the first freelance musician in history, Mozart frequently sought a reason to compose, whether it was for a commission, a public performance, or an “Akademie” (a subscription concert). While in Salzburg, Mozart had written numerous compositions for the Catholic Church at the request of the Archbishop, but these were mostly formulaic pieces, static in nature. This was as a result of a decree by Emperor Joseph II to "simplify" (read, shorten) the Mass.  Mozart’s efforts in the genre of church music were thus to that point largely simple, brief, muted motets, and missae breves, written for shorter services that were curated to be more “approachable” for parishioners.  

Once out of the employ of the Archbishop, Mozart was freed from any further obligations to write masses.  Yet, in the summer of 1782, for no apparent reason, Mozart started to compose a large setting for a full Mass. A devout Catholic, Mozart had not yet been introduced to masonry, so he was likely still thinking about religious topics as compositions, although never with the same zeal and passion that he felt about opera or concertos. 

On August 4 of that year, and before having even received his own father Leopold’s blessing, Mozart married Constanze Weber, one of the four musically talented daughters of a Mannheim family then living in Vienna. Leopold did not think the Weber family was aristocratic enough, and felt that a spouse would be a ‘distraction” from his son’s composing.

On January 4, 1783, Mozart wrote to his father, promising to compose for him a Mass if he would be allowed to bring his new bride to Salzburg. Mozart wrote that he had begun work on a new Mass which he would perform there, and stated that “as proof that I really made the promise…. the score of half a Mass for which I still have high hopes…. lays half-finished on my desk.”

While this composition may have been yet one more filial obligation by Mozart (as well as a peace offering) to his demanding father, it may also have been a gift of praise for the convalescence of Constanze, who by September, 1782, was pregnant with their first child, and herself quite ill. Yet, despite Mozart’s promise to his father of a complete work, that never occurred. The “promise kept” to his father resulted in the wondrous fragment which we will hear this afternoon: the “Great” Mass in C minor (The Mass K.V. 427).
Mozart worked episodically on the Mass for over a year, yet it was far from completed when it was first performed on October 26, 1783, in Salzburg’s St. Peter’s Abbey, a monastery found in 683 C.E., which was celebrating its 1100th anniversary. 

What has come down to us of this work in Mozart’s hand is a Kyrie and a Gloria, and a Credo which breaks off after the et Incarnatus est.  Mozart only sketched parts of the Sanctus and Benedictus, but he did not put pen to paper for the Agnus Dei.

      Mozart's autograph of the Kyrie of the C Minor Mass

The form of composition of this Mass is a cantata mass of Baroque tradition, in which the Latin text of the liturgy of the Mass is laid out in pieces as a series of separate movements, rather than “through-composed” (music with the liturgical text sung without interruption). It is surmised that Mozart may have interpolated movements from some of his previously composed masses to provide a full setting for this Mass, or that those missing movements were sung as Gregorian plainchant. 

Musicologists have been quick to criticize the Mass as lacking in stylistic cohesion and unity. There are several reasons to support this observation, the most compelling of which was an event of momentous importance that occurred soon after Mozart moved to Vienna: his introduction to the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. 

A wealthy diplomat and government official, van Swieten was also a talented amateur musician, a close friend of C.P.E. Bach and Joseph Haydn, and a passionate admirer of the works of J.S. Bach and Handel. Indeed, van Swieten owned copies of Bach’s b minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. Mozart quickly became fascinated, and then obsessed,  with the music of these Baroque masters, and began transcribing their works, adding his own ideas in fugue and counterpoint style from their templates. It was as if Mozart had entered a time-warp and began composing in the Baroque vernacular of the early eighteenth century.

Yet, Mozart had for a long time also been drawn to the theater and opera, and it appears that after a few months of wrestling with this “crisis of fugue and counterpoint” he turned back to his true passion, which was to push the boundaries and constraints of Classical Style to their ultimate reaches in the service of his operatic and concerto compositions.

As a result of this conflict, a number of different musical genres figure in the Mass. The two outer movements contain contrapuntal choral fugues in the style of J.S. Bach, there is a Handelian double chorus in the Credo and another reminiscent of Bach in the Domine. Mozart returned to echo Handel in the double dotted figures which abound in the Qui Tollis. The Quoniam, a trio for the two sopranos and tenor, channels Pergolesi. The monumentality of the Mass is also evident in its length, which had he completed it, would have been comparable to Bach’s b minor Mass, and as complex, with choruses in four, five and even at times, in eight parts.

However, Mozart also composed and embedded three full-blown operatic arias in the Mass: the Christe Eleison, where the soprano line dramatically bisects the Kyrie, and two other arias which are in the “Italian style”: the sublime Laudamus te and the otherworldly et incarnatus est. These two arias are so exquisite, refined, and internally complete that they are sometimes performed as stand-alone concert pieces. Both are written for soprano voice, but for sopranos with different Fachs (vocal ranges). The Laudamus te has an extraordinarily wide compass, and is usually sung today by either lyric sopranos or mezzos. In contrast, et incarnatus est has a higher tessitura, contains several C6 notes (“high Cs”), and is sung by coloratura sopranos. Mozart always did not distinguish between soprano voice types, and often challenged his singers; indeed there are several tricky octaval leaps and vocal landmines in these splendid solos. 
 Constanze Weber Mozart
Portrait by her brother-in law Joseph Lange
At the performance, Constanze sang one of these arias and apparently had some difficulty with it, despite being a talented vocalist. Mozart and Constanze left Salzburg for Vienna the day after the performance; Mozart would never again see his birthplace. and the Mass would not be heard for over one hundred years.

The central mystery of the C Minor Mass remains. Why did Mozart never feel the obligation to complete the work? In 1785, he took what he had composed of the Mass, added an aria for soprano and another for tenor, set the music to a different text, and produced the oratorio/cantata, Davidde Penitente (K.V. 469). Apart from the added two arias, the work contains no new material.  

Could Mozart have left the Mass unfinished because, by 1782, he finally made the psychological and physical break from his father, and no longer felt he owed him a completed work? Could Mozart have composed the Mass in joyful celebration of Constanze’s recovery from illness and the birth of their first child, Raimund Leopold in July 1782; and then, with the child’s death two months later, could he have been so disconsolate that he abandoned it? Could the Mass have simply been an exercise in Baroque counterpoint and fugue composition, and once Mozart had figured out that genre (as he figured out everything else, though this genre evidently took even Mozart some time), that it started to bore him, his creative juices flowing back to more contemporary and operatic directions ? Given that the Mass was not written as a commission, and was composed at least in part as “payback to dad,” could Mozart not have felt any need at all to finish the work, as there was no money to be earned from this endeavor? We will never know. 

Given its incomplete state, a number of composers have offered reconstructions. These include efforts by Robert Levin, H.C. Robbins-Landon, Richard Maunder, Franz Beyer, and Georg Alois Schmitt, whose 1901 completion resurrected the work from its unwarranted oblivion and is the setting heard this afternoon. The Schmitt completion provides most of the missing movements, adds a mezzo soprano to the vocal soloists, and provides a duet and a trio. The orchestration is for strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns and timpani.

With the C Minor Mass, we are left with a fragment and a conundrum, one which will be eternally insoluble. Yet, what Mozart has left to us remains an extraordinary composition. Even though it is incomplete, much like Mozart’s opus ultimum, the Requiem in D Minor, the C Minor Mass is a masterpiece. Not only is it on its own merit one of the greatest of mass settings, it is the bridge that connects J.S. Bach’s magisterial B Minor Mass with Beethoven’s indomitable Missa Solemnis, and it is also a bridge between the human, the mystical and the divine.  Befittingly, the C Minor Mass has been bestowed the surname, “Great,” which honors it in perpetuity as a transcendent summation of the entirety of eighteenth century sacred music, from the hand of music’s greatest genius as he approached the pinnacle of his creative powers. 
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Mozart composed the motet, Ave Verum Corpus (K.V. 618), in June, 1791, for the Feast of Corpus Christi and as a gift to his close friend Anton Stoll, organist and choirmaster of the church in Baden bei Wien. It was only the second piece of sacred music written by Mozart since the C Minor Mass eight years earlier. Its forty-six measures have justifiably been called the "most beautiful piece of music ever written." A work of astonishing simplicity and at once, wondrous profundity, Ave Verum Corpus bestows upon the listener a sublime and enduring message of sacred devotion.

The 1819 posthumour portrait of
Mozart by Barbara Kraft
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde
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Mozart’s last three and greatest symphonies, the 39th in Eb major, the 40th in G minor and the 41st in C major, were all written in the space of a few months, in the summer of 1788, in an astonishing burst of creative genius. The symphony in g minor (K.V. 550) is often called the “Great”, to distinguish  it from the so-called “little” g minor symphony (the 25th); they are the only two of Mozart's forty-one full symphonies in a minor key. The first movement of the 40th symphony begins darkly, and curiously not with an introductory theme. Rather, it starts with the exposition, introduced here by the strings, a strategy Mozart would similarly employ in his last piano concerto, the 27th in Bb, K.V. 595 (and that Mendelssohn later used in his second and greatest violin concerto). Another interesting aspect of thi symphony is that Mozart originally composed it without clarinets, and then revised the score to include two clarinets, undoubtedly as homage to his Masonic friends, Johann and Anton and Johann Stadler, who were the finest clarinetists in Vienna at that time.

                                 Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

©  Vincent P. de Luise M.D.  2014


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