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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

All works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at Carus

Mass settings and isolated movements from the Ordinary
Oratorios and cantatas
Music for the Holy Office
Further shorter church works
The church sonatas
One-act operas
Songs and airs
Mozart for children
Stuttgart Mozart Editions
The complete sacred vocal music as study scores
Choral collection Mozart · Haydn
Compact Discs


Sacred vocal music

“Church music was the composer’s favorite field of endeavor; but it was also the one he was least able to cultivate.” Thus Franz Xaver Niemetschek in the first great biography of Mozart. Niemetschek’s book appeared in 1798, seven years after the death of this towering genius whose 250th birthday will be celebrated on 27 January 2006. With a mixture of pride and contempt, Mozart once claimed of his arch-rival on the Viennese operatic stage, Antonio Salieri, that he “had never devoted himself to the church style, while I have made this style entirely my own from my childhood on.”

Indeed, Mozart’s earliest church compositions date from his childhood. The nine-year-old composer dedicated his psalm motet God is our Refuge to the British Museum during his first trip to England; the Kyrie in F major (K. 33) was written in Paris in June 1766. By the time of his masses of 1768–69, including the Orphanage Mass K. 139 and the Dominicus Mass K. 66, the boy had shown that he was not only a prodigy, but a church composer to be reckoned with.

Being the son of the deputy Kapellmeister to the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, who soon hired him as a violinist in his court orchestra, Mozart was constantly surrounded by church music in his boyhood. Salzburg’s church music reached a point of culmination under Sigismund von Schrattenbach, to which composers such as Johann Ernst Eberlin (1702–1762), Cajetan Adlgasser (1729–1777), and Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) all made their contributions. Mozart formed an acquaintance with Italian church music during his international tours; Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (1706–1784) opened his eyes in Bologna to the beauties of the a cappella style of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina and his imitators. Later, in Vienna, Mozart studied works by Johann Sebastian Bach (evidently including the B-minor Mass) and George Frideric Handel (Alexander’s Feast, The Messiah, and others). All of these impressions converged in a composer of whom it was said that he could imitate and adapt any style of music. Many of Mozart’s handwritten copies of contemporary church pieces have survived; some were even regarded for a long time as his own compositions, for he did not add the names of the composers to copies he made for his own study.

Nevertheless, this rich outpouring of church music came to a temporary halt with Mozart’s departure from the Salzburg court. Opera and the piano concerto were the new challenges that occupied his efforts in Vienna. The reforms of Emperor Joseph II, who sought to curtail the use of music in the church, may have been another contributing factor. Revealingly, the C-minor Mass K. 427, the greatest piece of church music from his early years in Vienna, remained unfinished. But neither did Joseph Haydn write a single mass between 1782 and 1796. In his final years Mozart again turned to church music. His application to succeed the mortally ill Leopold Hoffmann as chapel-master at St. Stephen’s Cathedral was accepted – but in vain, for he died even before Hoffmann. A jewel such as the Ave verum K. 618, which Mozart wrote in June 1791 as a favor to Anton Stoll, a schoolmaster and choir director living in Baden near Vienna, and the fragmentary Requiem K. 626 suggest what he might have achieved as a church composer if he had advanced to a position of greater responsibility.

Music for worship and concert

Mozart was a child of his time, and the life-affirming splendor of his church compositions is tailored to match the brilliantly lit baroque churches of Austria and southern Germany, resplendent in white and gold. Major keys, the sound of trumpets and kettledrums, and quick but never headlong tempos are external trappings of this cultural largesse. One peculiarity of the music of Austria and southern Germany is the so-called “church trio,” where the string section consists solely of two violins and a bass, the violas being omitted. In consequence, the second violin is generally more independent and set in a lower register than is usually the case.

Most of these works were intended for performance in Salzburg Cathedral, where they were given to unique effect with a large orchestra, professional male singers (women were forbidden to sing the soprano or alto parts), three trombones to reinforce the lower voices of the chorus, and two organs on the four galleries surrounding the crossing. Yet these same works were also performed at the Church of St. Peter with an ensemble of modest size and skills. Mozart’s compositions were also popular at the Holy Cross Church in Augsburg and at the Austrian and Bavarian pilgrimage sites and monastery churches in the nearby and greater vicinity of Salzburg.

Like the music of his contemporaries, Joseph and Johann Michael Haydn, Mozart’s church music stands in sharp contrast to the earnestness of the Palestrina style or the Lutheran church music of a Johann Sebastian Bach. But the entire arsenal of contrapuntal devices was at his disposal when needed, as witness such fugal movements as the “Pignus futurae” of the Sacramental Litany K. 125, or the Kyrie of the Requiem. His contemporaries took delight in the memorable melodies of his church compositions; numbers from his operas were even supplied with Latin texts and sung in monasteries. The bulk of his church music had already appeared in print by 1820. Later generations, in their fervor for the only “true church music,” have found Mozart to be wanting in the requisite seriousness and lacking, with respect to his membership in a Masonic lodge, a genuine attachment to the Roman Catholic faith. Surely this is unjust: Mozart used the Masonic lodge primarily to cultivate his social contacts (and to secure many a loan from his fellow Masons), and the accusations of superficiality and lack of commitment are completely unfounded.

There are no obstacles to the use of Mozart’s masses in church worship: they adhere strictly to the liturgical texts, which are reproduced in toto without alterations on his part, and call for forces of a moderate size. Indeed, the very brevity of his Missae breves can be an advantage in our fast-moving age. Unfortunately, churches often lack the means to adorn Vesper services and devotions with large-scale musical accompaniment, so that many of his most beautiful compositions for the church remain largely unknown. Among these are his settings of the Vespers and Litanies, which were especially popular in the eighteenth century. These works and the cantata Davide penitente (based on the unfinished C-minor Mass) merit more frequent performance, at least in church concerts, as has long been the case for the Requiem and the motet Exsultate jubilate K. 165. The theologian Karl Barth once quipped that the angels in heaven play Bach to God the Father, but prefer to play Mozart among themselves. Things would seem to be much the same on earth.

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