Symphony and Mass: Two Poles in the Sacrament of Music
What is the mystery of Mozart? Few people would question the assertion that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the most beloved of all composers today, as he has been for almost two hundred years. This is true not only among audiences but for musicians, many of whom treasure his operas, piano concertos, chamber music and orchestral works above all others. So it may be surprising to speak of "the mystery" of this apparently universal genius. Many of us feel we know the man and the musician, especially after Amadeus. But unlike such near-contemporaries as Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart, relatively unacclaimed during his lifetime, lacked the worshipful followers who might have recorded his day-to-day activities and, like all composers at that time, was not given to explaining his music - not until Wagner did composers begin to feel that their music required explication. Mozart lived in a common-practice era: the language of (Western) music was a vernacular among all educated people; the superficialities of musical discourse were readily understood.
Composers' lives are not often very interesting, nor should they be: what's left after they are gone is the music, and in retrospect that was the purpose of their existence. Not knowing what Mozart liked to eat for breakfast should matter little to us, apart from trivia quizzes. But understanding why a composer decided - without any motivating commission - to write a particular work at a certain moment can lead to insights into its performance. The mystery we are concerned with is why two great masterpieces - Mozart's supreme creations in the genres of sacred music and the symphony - came to be written, and why one of them was never finished.
On the 4th of August 1782 the 26-year-old Mozart married Constanze Weber over his father's strenuous objections. He is understood to have vowed to produce a mass in thanks for his marriage. There is a strong likelihood that the C-minor Mass was begun in fulfillment of that vow, and Mozart did perform a votive mass in Salzburg on the 26th of October 1783, when the couple traveled there to pay court to his father Leopold (the younger Mozart having more or less forced the Prince-Archbishop to dismiss him in mid-1781 so he could realize his destiny in Vienna).
In those circumstances, it seems strange that Mozart left the C-minor Mass incomplete. At least the Requiem's unfinished state can readily be excused: dead composers do not usually continue to write (though others sometimes attempt to channel them). Unlike Schubert, who left unfinished torsos of many pieces when he lost interest in a project or decided he had reached a dead end, Mozart normally appears certain of his direction from the beginning of a piece to the end, even if, contrary to legend, he did sketch works out before embarking on a complete draft. His music never sounds exploratory. So, though we may conjecture that he found the scale of this mass growing unexpectedly to enormous proportions as it developed - had it been completed it would match or exceed the dimensions of Bach's B-minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa solemnis - making it unsuitable for liturgical use or impossible to complete on time, this is unlikely, as is the possibility that the pressure of other work or the birth of his first child kept him from finishing the mass on schedule. Mozart was no Beethoven: he did not miss deadlines, and in any event was under no obligation to perform it that year; he could easily have substituted one of his earlier masses and may indeed have done so on that occasion.
The music itself is on the grandest scale right from the onset, mixing the high classicism of Mozart's maturity with a newly-developed interest in by-then archaic polyphonic richness: the Cum sancto spirito and Osanna fugues are Mozart's most involved, learned and virtuosic. The Kyrie begins ominously - we sense the awesome responsibility of marriage and fatherhood rather than their bliss - and though the operatic Christe (which like the other soprano solos may have been written for Constanze to sing) relieves some of the tension, we are soon wrenched almost violently back into C-minor darkness. The clouds lift only with the onset of the Gloria, a comparatively conventional - albeit extended - expression of praise.
Masses consisting only of a Kyrie and Gloria were common in Mozart's time; they were the usual practice in Salzburg except on feast days, the remainder of the service being chanted. If Mozart had stopped there eyebrows would be raised only by the vast scale of the two movements. But he went on, completing two sections of the Credo and composing a Sanctus and Benedictus complete in their essential features though lacking stretches of inner voices in both choral and orchestral parts. The Credo, too, is missing necessary inner string parts in a number of spots, and there is no evidence that Mozart ever began an Agnus Dei. That he simply abandoned the mass is patently obvious, but the reasons escape convincing explanation. Two years later, asked by the Vienna Society of Composers to compose a cantata for a benefit concert for musicians' widows, Mozart adapted the mass music to a new text; Davidde penitente at least shows us the composer's thrift.
So here the mystery involves non-completion. With the Jupiter symphony the mystery is in the origins of the piece itself.
The summer of 1788 was a difficult time for the Mozart family. Although the opera Don Giovanni had been enthusiastically received in Prague the previous year, opportunities in Vienna were drying up and money was scarce. At about this time Mozart wrote his first of a series of letters to his Masonic brother Michael Puchberg requesting a loan. On the 17th of June the family moved house, and on the 29th his six-month-old daughter Theresa died of an intestinal illness. Yet during that summer Mozart composed, within a span of eight to ten weeks, three symphonies - his most substantial - as well as two piano trios, two piano sonatas for students and several smaller-scale works.
It is not in itself strange that he created music in such volume: Mozart was always a fast worker, able to keep several projects in his head simultaneously as he developed them. Had he been commissioned to write three symphonies there would be little wonder at his efficiency. But there was no commission; Mozart seems atypically to have written them "on spec," for contemplated future concerts that in the end never took place. Though Mozart revised the middle member of the trilogy (in G minor) to include clarinets, there is still no evidence that it or the others were ever performed during his lifetime. Beyond this, there are suggestions within the texts that the composer may have conceived them in relation to each other. Each appears to be a demonstration of some ideal aspect of symphonic craft. K. 543, in E-flat, is warm and lyrical; K. 550, the Great G-minor, ferociously dramatic. The final symphony, K. 551 in C major, is a tour de force of orchestral counterpoint, taking the polyphony derived from the church-music tradition into the realm of the concert hall.
Composers in the Baroque and Classical periods often produced sets of works in a particular genre. We need only think of Vivaldi's concertos in groups of six or twelve, Handel's concerti grossi or even Haydn's and Mozart's collections of string quartets - also in the traditional packages of six. Bach raised that practice to a didactic level, using the opportunity provided by an anthology of works to show not only the range of his capabilities (as in the Brandenburg concertos), but to explore the potential of what might be done, as in the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering and the Well-Tempered Clavier. In these three uncommissioned symphonies Mozart seems to be aspiring to Bachian territory, offering to posterity a summation of the High Classical symphony. This is, if anything, an uncharacteristic posture for him, in its appeal to an imaginary audience beyond the immediate one in the theatre. But Mozart goes even further in his idealization of the symphony, especially in the Jupiter (a name, by the way, that has all to do with marketing and little to do with Mozart).
The symphony began as entertainment music, in the opera overtures and suites of stylized orchestral dances that accompanied guests' getting settled in their seats before the main event - which always involved vocal or instrumental soloists - commenced. Haydn in particular began to expand the reach of the symphony toward something that would itself demand an audience's attentiveness, but Mozart's earlier symphonies on the whole retained the characteristics of an overture, with a peremptory call to attention leading to a brilliant resolution, without the emotional depth of his piano concertos among his instrumental music. In these three final symphonies, though, Mozart seems to be insisting on the symphony's priority, anticipating later generations' veneration of the concert hall as a place of cultural ritual, as a medium for intensified feeling, as the secular equivalent to a church. Signifiers include the increased use of sonata form (along with fugue the most "serious" mode of musical discourse then in use) not only in the first movements but in their successors - three of the Jupiter's four movements are sonatas. Sheer length also implies importance, and Mozart expands the G-minor and Jupiter symphonies to unprecedented dimensions not only through their contents but with the increased use of indications to repeat sections. But in the Jupiter Mozart strives for and achieves heights of grandiosity in two new ways: by introducing a level of complex polyphony until then restricted to sacred music (the holy realm and the traditional vehicle for a composer's highest aspirations), and by restructuring the symphony's architecture so that the finale becomes the destination of the entire journey, rather than simply the third of three successive resolutions, in varying forms, to the challenges posed by an imposing opening movement.
The first three movements of the Jupiter are, especially in comparison to this symphony's two predecessors, ordinary in conception - deceptively so. The first movement even begins and is built on a standard call-to-attention pattern familiar from two previous C-major symphonies by Mozart - the Paris and K. 338 - and the D-major Haffner. There are hints, though, of contrapuntal activity in the earlier movements; these smooth the way for the finale's eruption into polyphony and keep it from being a complete surprise. Even the finale begins in deceptive homophony, counterpoint interposing itself gradually into the texture, appearing at first only in a transitional section. But the central development section is all about the contrapuntal interweaving of voices as well as the usual migration of tonalities, until, after a normal recapitulation, a new journey begins, mysteriously falling away in an inversion of the main theme's melodic contour, in a transition to Mozart's final coup de théâtre: the contrapuntal combination of all the finale's motifs, a summary gesture astonishing in its daring and its sound. Hearing this coda, we understand Mozart's decision to write unremarkable (though brilliant) music in the first three movements: the trajectory must be upwards. In effect, Mozart creates a secular continuation to the great mass he had begun but not realized five years earlier. Perhaps he had an inchoate sense that in doing so he was anticipating later generations' elevation of music to a plane equivalent to that of religion.
In the presence of two such supernal masterpieces as the C-minor Mass and the Jupiter Symphony, the early Dixit and Magnificat, composed by an eighteen-year-old Mozart for Vespers services at Salzburg's cathedral in 1774, are at a particular disadvantage. In company with those later works, however, they do show us the vast musical distance he traveled in his life. Their machinelike fluency is typical of the composer at that time and of any number of his contemporaries, remarkable only in his precocity in attaining it. (In contrast to this, Mendelssohn by a similar age had already composed his string octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.) The final mystery, then, is how Mozart rose above that level, to a mastery not only of the materials of music but of its essence, mastery that has few parallels in history.
- Jerome Hoberman -
As in The Hong Kong Bach Choir and Orchestra's 2002 performance of Mozart's Requiem, in the C-minor Mass we use an edition, by H.C. Robbins Landon, that meddles least with the work as Mozart left it. Landon has limited himself to filling in missing voices in both choral and orchestral parts in movements otherwise completed by Mozart himself.