On 4 August 1782, in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Wolfgang Mozart married the woman he loved, Constanze Weber. The groom had not received the approval of his father, Leopold, although a rather grudging blessing arrived by post a few days later. Later still, on 4 January 1783, Wolfgang wrote to his father telling him of a vow he had made to himself some time before Constanze became his wife, a vow that, if he succeeded in marrying her, he would write a Mass in thanks. He goes on to mention “as proof that I really made the promise ... the score of half a Mass for which I still hold out great hope".
That “half a Mass" was apparently the Mass in C minor, but whatever his hopes for the work, Mozart seems never to have completed it. Nevertheless he conducted the first performance of the incomplete work in St. Peter's Abbey in Salzburg in October 1783. Constanze Mozart was one of the soloists, and as Paul McCreesh says, “The Mass seems to be not only a homage to God, but also a musical statement of his love for Constanze. The soprano solos are extraordinary vocal showpieces, and they are clearly written with a love and a passion that are all-consuming. As we know from reading Mozart's letters, he had a strong religious and moral sense, but he was also thoroughly worldly; and in the Mass as in the letters, we can feel sensuality, even sexual passion coursing through the pages."
What survives of Mozart's Mass are the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo (up to “Et incarnatus est"), the Sanctus and the Benedictus. The missing fragments are the rest of the Credo, and the Agnus Dei. It is unclear how, or even if, Mozart completed the Mass for performance in St. Peter's Church; perhaps he interpolated his own earlier setting of the texts, or had the texts spoken or chanted. Perhaps he simply omitted them altogether: Mozart was, after all, a practical musician, so much so that when, in 1785, he was commissioned to write a piece for the pension fund of a Viennese musicians' benevolent society, he recycled much of the music of the C minor Mass. The music was reworked and two further arias were added to create the cantata Davidde penitente, its text probably written by Lorenzo da Ponte.
There have been several attempts to provide a completion of the Mass, but for most modern audiences the fact that some of the liturgy is missing matters less than the quality of what is actually present. “It is a torso, and of course we would all love it to have been completed," says Paul McCreesh. “Mozart's Agnus Dei would undoubtedly have been something beautiful, but like Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, the Mass as it stands hangs together. It is through-composed, and simply glorious music, and that makes it worth performing as it is. Any attempt to complete it runs the risk of negating the quality of what survives. The version we are performing is by Richard Maunder, who has completed the movements where Mozart's orchestration is incomplete; but no attempt has been made to supply music which Mozart left unwritten."
The Mass had its premiere in Salzburg, Mozart's home-town, where, until their catastrophic and terminal falling out in 1781, he had spent ten years in the service of the Prince Archbishop Colloredo. By the time of the work's premiere, Colloredo, following the example of Emperor Joseph II, had imposed restrictions on elaborate Mass settings of the kind Mozart had written, and so the work had to be performed outside Colloredo's jurisdiction, in St. Peter's Abbey, although in order to bring the forces up to the strength he required, Mozart recruited some of the Archbishop's orchestra and chorus.
Exact details of the players and singers at his disposal are sketchy; as Paul McCreesh explains, “We simply don't know enough about the historical background. We could presuppose that it was performed with fairly small forces; or we might think that Mozart conceived the piece on an enormous scale: it has huge eight-part choruses, for example, the like of which we hardly find elsewhere in his music. We certainly know that he encountered orchestras on the large side in several of the cities that he visited, so for this performance I've decided that we should use what in modern terms would be thought of as a large chamber orchestra. Similarly with the vocal forces: we really don't know what Mozart had at his disposal, so we have had to make some intelligent guesses. With works outside the canon of regular performances, these kinds of decisions are always difficult."
Mozart wrote his Mass soon after his friend Baron Gottfried van Swieten loaned him the works of Bach (possibly including a copy of the B minor Mass obtained from C. P. E. Bach) and Handel. These were to have a profound effect on the young composer, and his own Mass setting shows the influence of his baroque predecessors. According to Paul McCreesh, “The C minor Mass is Mozart at his most baroque. He is clearly looking backwards, at least in the choral movements, several of which might have been written 20 or 30 years earlier. Besides the traces of Bach, there is so much Handel in the piece: and for Mozart as for Haydn, Handel was the baroque composer par excellence, more so even than Bach, whose music was not so widely circulated at that time. So you get this fascinating juxtaposition: on the one hand, the flexibility, the suave sensuality of the solo vocal passages, with, for the sopranos, that fresh, agile, quasi-instrumental writing that Mozart loved so much; and on the other, the colossal, almost baroque choral movements with their static chords and often quite slow moving harmonies."
Lasting almost an hour, the Mass does not on its own fill a modern concert programme or recording, which causes problems that different conductors solve in different ways. According to Paul McCreesh, “One option is to include other, shorter pieces of Mozart's sacred music, such as the Ave verum corpus that he wrote right at the end of his life. Instead I have opted for two of the great 18th-century dramatic cantatas, both of them almost operas in miniature. They represent the late flowering of a form that is akin to an orchestral version of the 17th-century basso continuo cantata. They are incredibly powerful pieces."
Haydn wrote Scena di Berenice during his second visit to London in 1794-95; Beethoven's Ah! perfido dates from 1796, and was written for Prague. Both use texts by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), the great poet of Italianate opera seria whose rhetorical style had become somewhat outdated by this time. But over the shorter span of these works, his texts clearly inspired the composers to some of their most dramatic vocal writing (Metastasio wrote only the opening section of Ah! perfido: the ensuing aria is by an anonymous author).
Both pieces give vent to the rage of an abandoned woman, and each was written for a specific singer whose vocal range the composer exploited to the full: Haydn wrote his Scena for the soprano Brigida Banti, a favourite with London audiences; while Ah! perfido was premiered by Josepha Duschek. As Paul McCreesh points out, “Ah! perfido is one of the greatest of all dramatic scenas, and it's often sung by rather grand dramatic sopranos [Kirsten Flagstad, Maria Callas and Jessye Norman have been among its distinguished interpreters]. But Josepha Duschek was a close friend of Mozart, who wrote several pieces for her including the scena Ah, lo previdi, for example, and Bella mia fiamma, which is one of his finest concert arias. So I think the voice type required, while obviously needing a certain amount of punch, also has to be able to suggest a certain vulnerability."
Haydn's Scena, meanwhile, was first performed at a concert at London's Haymarket Theatre on 4 May 1795: the programme also included the premiere of Haydn's Symphony no. 104, as well as a duet from his opera Orlando Paladino and Symphony no. 100 (the “Military"): “It must have been an amazing concert," says Paul McCreesh, “and it's one I'd love to re-create at some point. The 'Military' Symphony is one of the greatest of all symphonies, and it seems the audience encored the slow movement in the middle of the performance. It must have been wonderful to hear the symphonies as well as Brigida Banti's fast and furious vocal pyrotechnics and, arguably, one of the finest farewells in music. If there was one concert I would like to have been at in a previous life, this is the one!"
Mass in C Minor, K.427 "Grosse Messe" - Et incarnus est