Mozart: Mass in C minor Program Notes

Mozart composed Ave Verum Corpus just six months before he died. In June
1791, his wife Constanze was pregnant with their sixth child. As was her habit
when pregnant, she left Vienna to take the waters at the nearby spa in Baden.
Mozart joined her a few days later and composed this short motet for an old
friend – the music director of a tiny church in the town, who had looked after
Constanze during her frequent trips to Baden. Although scored frugally for mixed
choir, strings and organ and only forty-six bars long, Ave Verum Corpus is a gem
of Mozartean simplicity and beauty.

Vesperae Solennes de Confessore was Mozart’s final sacred work for the
religious court of Salzburg, before moving to Vienna in 1781. It was probably first
performed in Salzburg in August 1780, likely to honour a particular saint’s day.
The work is a setting of five psalms, of which we’ll hear the last three, and the
concluding Magnificat tonight. In Psalm 112, Beatus Vir, Mozart contrasts
energetic choral sections with tender, lyrical episodes for soloists and strings.
Psalm 113, Laudate Pueri foreshadows some of the dark solemnity of the later
Requiem and illustrates the young Mozart’s knowledge of Baroque forms and
techniques. Psalm 117, Laudate Dominum is a completely different style – one of
Mozart’s greatest examples of his talent for writing for the human voice. Like an
operatic aria of love, the solo soprano seems to float over the choir and
orchestra. The closing Magnificat begins with a slow but powerful Adagio,
followed by more alternation between soloists and choir.

In 1773 Mozart wrote incidental music to the play Thamos, King of Egypt by
Tobias Philipp Baron von Gebler (1726-1786). When a touring company later
produced the play in Salzburg, Mozart revised and added to the music. The
popularity of the Gebler play eventually waned, along with Mozart’s music to it,
but he tried to salvage some by setting sections to sacred Latin texts, like
Splendente te, Deus, possibly for use in his Lenten concerts in Vienna.
In August 1782 Mozart married Constanze Weber in Vienna, against his
father Leopold’s wishes. To appease Leopold, and as a gesture of thanksgiving
for his marriage, Mozart vowed to perform a new mass in Salzburg, when he
brought his bride home to meet his father and sister. For a number of reasons
Mozart procrastinated, but in a letter to his father in January 1783, he wrote,
“Concerning the vow, it is quite true. I have really promised it in my innermost
heart, and hope to be able to keep it. The time and circumstances prevented our
trip to Salzburg, as you know. As witness, however, that I fully intend to keep my
promise, there is the score of half a mass, lying on my desk with the best of

Finally, in October 1783 Mozart and Constanze journeyed to Salzburg and
sections of the incomplete Mass in C minor were performed. The first soprano
part was taken by Constanze, an able if not especially gifted singer. Apparently
her singing was quite good, but neither Leopold nor Mozart’s sister Nannerl was
impressed. Mozart and Constanze then returned to Vienna and Mozart resumed
his career as a pianist, teacher and composer. A few years later, facing a
commission deadline, he re-worked some of the material into a cantata, but when
Mozart died in 1791, the Mass in C minor remained incomplete.
Over the years, there have been various attempts of completion by
musicologists – mostly filling in the gaps with earlier sacred music by Mozart.
But the earlier material didn’t match with the style, depth and mastery of the later
music from the Mass in C minor. Nowadays, we often hear the incomplete
version as performed tonight by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – only the music
that Mozart originally wrote, with no attempt to substitute or fill out.
The Mass in C minor clearly shows Mozart’s interest and love for the music of
Baroque masters like Bach and Handel. Although he knew this music as a child,
it was through his friendship with Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Vienna Court
Librarian, that Mozart’s respect grew for the great Baroque choral works, and
there is much use of fugues and counterpoint in the Mass. But there’s also the
influence of Italian opera at which Mozart was so adept. Some of the solo arias
could be taken right out of one of his operas. In many ways, the Mass in C minor
is a summation of all the influences on Mozart. Like the armless Greek statue
Venus de Milo, the Mass in C minor may be an incomplete torso, but that makes
it no less a masterpiece.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.

Categories: 2010-2011 Season and Program Notes.