"Godless Rebel" or "Faithful Devotee?": A Discussion of the "Appropriateness" of Mozart's Church Compositions in 18th Century Austria
Note: This is essay was written as part of my Music History course in Classical Music. It is important that the reader takes note of the notes I have written at the bottom of this essay, as it gives more accurate information on the topic I have chosen, given to me by my lecturer. I received a High Distinction for this essay.
If one were to enter the Imperial Chapel in Vienna on All Saints Day, one would have the privilege of hearing a beautiful rendition of Mozart's Requiem (K626) (Geiringer 375). This famous piece - like many other church compositions that Mozart wrote - has managed to "maintain [its] place in Austrian liturgical use since the eighteenth century" (Geiringer 376). It is hard to imagine that such pieces, which have brought much joy to many faithful church-goers since the time they were composed (Geiringer 376), were once the subject of debate in terms of their "appropriateness" for a mass setting. This debate emerged from the changes that were developing in liturgical music of the time, and how Mozart's method of combining "traditional" church modes with "contemporary" operatic styles did not exactly fit in with those changes. This essay will examine some of the reasons why his works would have been deemed "inappropriate" in eighteenth century Austrian liturgy, and will demonstrate how Mozart never intended to "rebel" against these new changes and made consistent effort to convey reverence through his music. His incompleteMass in C Minor (K427)will be used to demonstrate his delicate balance of innovativeness and conformity to produce a very appropriate and sacred piece of music.
It is important when discussing the "appropriateness" of Mozart's church compositions to understand the historical context in which they were written. Prior to the introduced changes to Austrian liturgy, the incorporation of operatic styles was an accepted practice. H. C. Robbins Landon states that Austrian church music of the time had a "dualistic streak" to it, in that many composers sought to include operatic soprano solos and flourishing arias, whilst maintaining the 'stilo antico' forms that were essential to "traditional" church music ("The Mozart Essays," 168). Mozart, at a young age was exposed to the works of Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783), Ernst Eberlin (172 - 62), Anton C. Adlgasser (1728 - 77), J. F. Lollui (d. 1778) and Michael Haydn (737 - 1806), all of whom integrated operatic music styles with traditional church music in their own compositions (Geiringer 362). Having been influenced by these composers, it was only natural for Mozart to write his first church compositions in the same manner (Geiringer 362 - 63). However, this period of experimentation was threatened with the rise of a new Archbishop.
When Archbishop Colloredo came into power in Salzburg in 1772 (Geiringer 365), many changes were implemented to further maintain the reverence that was to be observed during mass (Küster 34 - 35). Colloredo proposed that these changes should include not having the music "embellished to the point where (the text in the liturgy) served merely as an excuse for an indulgen display of musical skills" (Küster 35); the music was not to draw attention to itself, but rather complement the liturgical text, so that parishioners would concentrate more on the text and less on the music. This restriction meant that operatic-style compositions were now discouraged in liturgical use, as they border-lined the kind of "indulgent display" which was to be avoided (Küster 35, Geiringer 365). Other restrictions that Colloredo introduced included restricting the length of the mass to no longer than forty-five minutes (Küster 35, Landon, "The Mozart Essays," 170), and having the Latin texts of the hymns translated into the vernacular (Küster 34). It has also been suggested that he may have preferred church compositions to be written only in the key of C Major, due to the fact that the majority of compositions of that time - including Mozart's - were all written in this key (Geiringer 370). All of these changes imposed "severe restraint[s]" upon church composers of the time, as they attempted to conform to the Archbishop's wishes (Küster 39). Mozart's Spatzenmesse (K220) is the first composition which demonstrates his attempt to comply with the new changes (Küster 39).
The Mass in C Minor (K.427) (1782 - 83) was written not long after Mozart had left Colloredo's service (Zaslaw 14). Having not been written for a specific mass setting (Geiringer 371, Rushton 109 - 10), it was thought to have been written in celebration of three major events in the composer's life: his marriage to his wife Constanze, her recovery from a terrible illness she had contracted during pregnancy, and the safe delivery of their first-born son (Corneilson 125, Landon, "The Mozart Essays", 182, Rushton 109, Zaslaw 14). Unfortunately, only the Kyrie and Gloria sections were completed before his death ; the Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus have been left unfinished (Landon, "Mozart's Mass in C Minor," 420). Although this piece was written after leaving Colloredo's service - thereby inferring that he was no longer under obligation to write a church composition adherent to Colloredo's imposed restrictions - it is a good example which demonstrates the musicla elements which were acceptable in church compositions of the day, and the ones which were not. We will now examine parts of the Mass in detail to understand why the operatic elements found within it would have been deemed "inappropriate" during this time.
The most obvious operatic elements in the piece are found in the Gloria and Credo sections, namely in "Laudamus te" and "Et incarnatus est" (Landon, "The Mozart Essays", 184, Mozart 20 - 27, 87 - 95, Zaslaw 15). The soprano section of "Laudamus te" resembles a "slightly stiff coloratura" (Mozart 21 - 22, 25 - 26, Zaslaw 15), and the soprano section of "Et incarnatus est" is written in an aria form "reminiscent of Italian Opera" (Mozart 88 - 89, Landon, "The Mozart Essays", 183).
The aria in "Et incarnatus est" would have been particularly problematic under Colloredo's standards, because the Credo was one of the most important sections of the mass; it was the tiem when the priest would prepare his parishioners for receiving the holy communion (Parsch 61). It could be argued that the aria might have possibly distracted parishioners from preparing themselves properly for communion, as they would have paid more attention to the trills and ornamentations, rather than on the ritual itself; it would have been perceived to be "an indulgent display of musical skills" (Küster 35), which would have distracted the listener from focusing on the sacred liturgical text and focused more on the singer's musical abilities. Furthermore, the solo section is practically a "re-writing of Ilia's 'Se'il padre perdei' from Act 2 of Idomeneo" (Corneilson, LMPSLP Website). The fact that parishioners could have easily identified this well-known aria in such a sacred text may have further distracted their focus from the sacredness of the mass service. In short, it is evident just from this small portion of the piece why the incorporation of operatic styles in church music would have been strongly discouraged in eighteenth century Austria.
The fact that Mozart chose to write the text in Latin is another important factor to note. *(Please see note at the end). The Mass was written during the time when Colloredo instructed the churches to translate the Latin texts of the hymns into German (Küster 34). The fact that Mozart had left the text in Latin is anothe rpossible reason as to why the Mass might not have been considered "appropriate" at the time it was written.
Assuming that Colloredo really did prefer having church compositions to be written in the key of C (Geiringer 370), the fact that the Mass is written in C Minor can also be seen as another "inappropriate" element.
It could be interpreted from these examples that Mozart was somewhat of a "rebel," who defied the changes that had been implemented. However, scholars have argued that this is not the case at all. For example, Julian Rushton states that Mozart and his contemporaries "must have thought their church music [was] sufficiently spiritual and entirely appropriate, or they would not have composed it as they did" (13). He argues that Mozart would have paid particular attention to the liturgical texts when deciding on melodies that would be appropriate to them (46). Karl Geiringer concurs that the "attitude" in which Mozart and his contemporaries wrote their church compositions was simply to "glorify the Lord" (376). He also points out many examples of Mozart's other mass pieces that strictly follow Colloredo's specified criteria (366 - 69). It can be thus seen from these arguments that as a church composer, Mozart should hardly be considered a "rebel."