15 Mozart's Music for the Church
The finest of man's creations proclaim the glory of God
The occasion was the consecration of a new orphanage in Vienna. The time was Dec. 7, 1768. The people involved were the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, his mother the Empress Maria Theresa, the Prince-Elector of Salzburg, Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the 12-year-old boy prodigy who was returning from a grand tour, during which he had charmed the principal courts and notabilities of the continent. The work was a new Mass (it would go down in musical history as the Missa solemnis in C minor, Kochel, 139) commissioned to mark the occasion for a large orchestra, timpani, and four trumpets.
The day was very cold. The music was played by freezing fiddlers and wheezing wind-players. But it was conducted by the composer. And the whole present court and congregation recognised that something incomparable was issuing from the work and genius of the youth. The Prince-Elector decided at once that Mozart should be brought hack to Salzburg and be appointed his Kapellmeister, that is, his orchestral director and chief composer.
Church music would never be the same again.
Count von Schrattenbach had been head ot the Archdiocese of Salzburg for 15 years and would continue so until 1771, when he was succeeded by Count Hieronymus von Colloredo. The archbishops of Salzburg had long been recognized as princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and their archdiocese was thus a sovereign state. As sovereign princes, they became great patrons of the arts, perhaps because, unlike other princes, they could not perpetuate their names by founding families. Both Archbishops von Schrattenbach and von Colloredo were fond of music, and both were caught up in the ideal of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was the age of reason, the age of reform, the age of order, symmetry, progress, and of the cultivation of harmony. Many of its leaders were dogmatic atheists, others rejected organized religion as "unnatural," but many others reconciled the ideals of the age with their faith and religious convictions.
Thc archbishops of Salzburg were among the latter, von Colloredo especially. He was determined to govern ''reasonably." He promoted education and welfare plans, he reformed the administration of the law. and stimulated research and scholarship. For liturgy he wanted harmonious ceremonies in which no musical embellishment would impede the order and flow ot the ritual.
He disliked and forbade the long, traditional Sanctus. Benedictus, and Agnus Dei whose effect was to halt and chop up the Canon and Communion of the Mass. He wanted short pieces during which prayer would be carried on and passed back to the priest by the choir without any breaks. In fact, he commanded that no liturgy in his cathedral should excced 45 minutes.
Mozart would be at Salzburg far some eight years, from 1769 to 1777, between the ages of 12 and 21. Until then, he had belonged to the courts of Europe: Schonbrunn, Versailles, and Saint James's. Within a year, he would perform for the newly-crowned Pope Cement XIV who would award him a knighthood in the Order of the Golden Spur, the highest honour ever accorded a musician by the Holy See.
Alter he left Salzburg in 1777, he would belong to the kindhearted world of Vienna, and to the rivalry of its artists. Before he died in 1791, he would be acclaimed as undoubtedly the leading composer of his century. And later posterity would recognize in him the greatest musical genius of all time.
During his years at Salzburg, Mozart belonged to the Church. As a believing and practicing Catholic, he sincerely set his genius to transforming his patrons' short liturgies into great acts of faith, praise and celebration. He wrote a dozen Masses, and quantities of litanies, Vespers, Psalms, Magnificats and motets — all filled with his elegant and harmonious insight into the sacred texts of the Latin rite .
At Salzburg, Mozart was approaching the summit of his powers, and in him, it has been said, the music of western civilization was reaching the apex of perfection. Archbishop von Schrattenbach's decision to bring him into his court ensured that the finest of what was made by man would be forever, for all of us, an explicit proclamation of the glory of God.