"Bravo to conductor Carlo Goldstein for conducting this excellent orchestra with elegance, free from any exaggeration, and with an attention to detail that did justice to this sophisticated score."  

Musica - Nicola Cattò


“Believing means liberating the indestructible element in oneself,
or, more accurately, liberating oneself, or, more accurately: being”.
Franz Kafka

Many dreams were shattered in that January of 1779. Who knows what Mozart’s state of mind was that winter when, after spending a year and a half seeking new opportunities in Paris and Mannheim, he was forced to resign himself to resuming his duties as organist for the detested Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. Mozart was then a young man of 23 who abhorred more than anything else that dull routine with its 450-florin annual salary: what a disappointment it was for him to return home in that way!

In Mannheim, one of Europe’s most advanced musical courts, Mozart had done everything: he had taught, played, composed, made friends with many different musicians, and fallen in love with Aloysia Weber, a promising young soprano who also happened to be the sister of his future wife. In Paris, however, he had several good concerts during the summer months but soon found himself in dire financial straits, with his mother seriously ill: she died in July and was buried in Saint-Eustache. During his sad journey home, Mozart stopped in Munich, where he met Aloysia again: she had achieved success, was now engaged, and no longer had any interest in that jobless man from Salzburg.

One of the first pieces Mozart began composing on his return home was the Krönungsmesse K 317. Many themes related to his miserable homecoming can be found in this Mass: the new horizons of Mannheim, his love for Aloysia, and the difficulty of bearing the restrictions Salzburg imposed on him.

What is particularly striking about the composition of the Krönungsmesse is the disparity between the content and the way in which that content is realized: it is a Missa Solemnis compressed into aMissa Brevis. The solemnity of the choral music, the density of the vocal counterpoint that occasionally emerges, and the freedom with which they handle certain topoi of the Missa, tell us that Mozart wanted more than he could have. He wanted much more than the strict obligation to limit the service to no more than 45 minutes; wanted much more than was possible with the scant Salzburg Orchestra (which had no violas and only a few wind instruments); wanted a much more prestigious opportunity than an Easter celebration in a peripheral town; wanted, wanted, but nonetheless... could not have.

Mozart’s musical gift was capable of so much more than what could be accomplished in terms of religious music in Salzburg: in the winter of 1779, many people may have noticed that this work was far superior to those he had composed in previous years; but he felt it was still immeasurably inferior to those he could compose.

Freed from such constraints, Mozart could precisely demonstrate the different scale on which he was now operating: just two years later, in Vienna, he wrote the Große Messe in C Minor K 427, in which everything is multiplied compared to the Krönungsmesse. It lasts about twice as long, the orchestration is finally full and complete, the vocal parts are audacious, the double chorus opens up new counterpoint possibilities, and certain numbers have an entirely new significance. It was a revolutionary work that Mozart wrote for personal reasons, without a commission, and it is perhaps for this reason that the work remained unfinished.

Returning to the Krönungsmesse; there are certain moments within the score that I always find personally moving; in fact, they strongly testify to Mozart’s primary talent: empathy. In other words, the capacity to identify with the thoughts, feelings, and situations of men and women who live on the great stage of life.

There was no situation, no matter how distant from his personal experience, that Mozart could not spontaneously relive from a first-person perspective. Even though this ability is very well known and recognized in the theater, in my eyes it is even more incredible in terms of religious music. A practical man, whose sensual nature was inclined toward material pleasures – from women to gambling – a man essentially devoid of any particular culture, and much less any religious culture, Mozart was still able to empathize with the most abstract, transcendent concepts with incredible profundity: the virginity of Mary, the Incarnation of Christ, his sacrifice, the ambiguity of Pilate. Every passage is rendered with such emotional truth as to become accessible in the most immediate way without, on the other hand, creating a closeness that diminishes or trivializes the transcendent aura in any way.

A few practical examples. The Incarnatus Est, in the middle of the Credo, comes as a complete surprise: the Credo proceeds in a triumphant C major – Allegro molto – with a kind of joyful moto perpetuum of the strings, which, in the immediately preceding verse – descendit de coelis – comes to a great antiphonal counterpoint in an Alleluia style. Yet, without any warning, Mozart brings all this enthusiasm to a halt.

Here is the fascinating manuscript:

A sudden shift: Adagio! We are on a dominant of F minor, the muted strings like an icy wind as the soloists sing a steady counterpoint. The verse, “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine”, is rendered in a perturbing way; the harmony alludes to the possibility of unexpected drama (F minor) which, however, never comes to pass; it is as though we are suspended, neither happy nor sad. In these three measures (60, 61, 62), the vocals all have a relatively low texture. The highest note (E-flat), sung by the soprano, is on the word “Virgine”: Mozart has given the highest, most mysterious concept the highest note; a point of light. Here, Mozart shifts to a weak chord – fourth and sixth in A-flat major – and in the following measure finally resolves the harmony, leaving us, however, initially uncertain: is the luminous A-flat we hear a tonic or a subdominant? In the next verse, “et homo factus est”, Mozart repeats the word homo twice, thus modulating from the uncertainty to the light. The music abruptly discovers human warmth; we now understand that we have gone from C major to E-flat major: a hand has guided us through the unconceivable up to the familiar.

There are certainly other religious works in which the Incarnatus est is rendered in the most spectacular manner – the famous one in the Große Messe in C minor for instance – but I do not know of any other work that conveys the significance of this verse in a way that is both as profound and as condensed. In four measures (four!), Mozart describes a miracle: the bewilderment and fear before the ineffable (measures 60, 61 & 62), the uncertainty that precedes belief (first part of measure 63), the leap of rationality that requires faith, and finally the comfort it provides (measures 63 & 64). Mozart was not a theologian and would not have been able to express in words even half the concepts that his music describes with captivating precision. Here, Mozart understands through music before he can comprehend with his thought. 

The following measures are some of the most powerful in the entire score: the dramatic emphasis of the crucifixion scene – crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato – culminates in an anguished interrupted cadence on the name Pilato (measure 68), emanating the pain of those last terrible words that Mozart makes the chorus repeat in a desperate whisper: passus, passus, passus et sepultus est, sepultus est.

Another exceptional moment in this Krönungsmesse is the transition between the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei.

Upon closer inspection, it is not even a musical moment; it is a moment of complete silence!

When performing the Krönungsmesse in concert, it is easy to miss the fundamental point: the Eucharist is taking place right here, in this pause between the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei.

Every movement in this Missa begins in C major, with the exception of the Agnus Dei, which begins in F major. We are not in a close key, but in the absolutely closest key. There is only one different note: we have barely moved at all. The atmosphere, however, is celestial; this music seems to have come from another world! It is difficult to explain what is really happening here from an analytical perspective: Mozart does not do anything special. Harmonically it is nothing special, formally nothing is unexpected: switching from a cadenza in C major to a cantabile in F major! Yet with those muted strings, the oboe that comments from on high as if it were an angel, the pianissimo horns that add greater depth, the vaguely primitive lack of violas: we are truly reborn into a new life.

The preceding Osanna in C major told us of God the creator of the universe, the great God who rules the heavens, the Almighty who reigns among hosts of angels; this F major, so close yet so different, speaks instead of the solace for which everyone yearns, of the inner point of reference that guides us through suffering; it tells us of a God who dwells in the human heart rather than in Heaven.

Mozart wrote this Agnus Dei for Aloysia Weber while he was still enamored with her; this solo is a tribute to her voice. And the entire conclusion of the Krönungsmesse, beginning with this solo, thus has the unusual flavor of a theatrical scene, in which the chorus’ Dona nobis pacem seems more like a salute to the heroine than the finale of a mystical rite.

Mozart illustrates the eschatological Christian experience, drawing on... his experience as a disappointed suitor. And he succeeds admirably!

Finally, many commentators have remarked upon the innovation represented by the return of theKyrie theme in the final Dona nobis pacem. Noting that repetition, however, is not sufficient: the “cyclic form” did not exist for Mozart, and establishing thematic relationships between different moments of a composition was in no way regarded as being of value. So why repeat this theme? And how does it return?

The repetition is identical from a melodic point of view, but not from a metric one. At the beginning of the Krönungsmesse, in the Kyrie, it was on the upbeat (Più andante, measure 7); now it is on the beat (Andante con moto, measure 57): now the music seems finally at peace, having found its proper place, its definitive position in the world. The first invocation of the Kyrie seemed normal; now we realize that something was missing. Something that only the experience of the Agnus Dei was able to provide. We believed we were complete, but now that we truly are, we realize that something essential was lacking: we had all the elements, but were unable to view them from the right perspective.

I do not know of any musical representation of faith that is more anti-rhetorical than these few, simple, Mozartian measures; the return of this pure melody in which everything is at once exactly as it was before, yet also nothing like it was before.