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Program Notes: Mozart's Great Mass

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Saturday, November 9, 2019 at 8:00PM

Sunday, November 10, 2019, at 3:00PM

Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Joanne Lunn, soprano

Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Amy Kaiser, director

HAYDN Symphony No. 48, "Maria Theresia" MOZART Mass in C Minor, K. 427


Composer Franz Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn


Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria

Died May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 48, “Maria Theresia”

The Occasion

Franz Joseph Haydn lived in a time of great social change and political foment. But he was no boat-rocker, unlike his former student Beethoven, who once told a prince that his high position was “an accident of birth.”

For much of his life, Haydn had a steady job. He was the head of music for the immensely wealthy Esterházy family in modern-day Austria, writing and directing for their bustling cultural life. Haydn may have been a musician for hire, but he couldn’t keep his personality from bursting at every seam. Indeed, he often said that the isolation of his day job encouraged his originality. One contemporary referred to the “odd flights, strange passages, and eccentrick [sic.] harmonies” in Haydn’s music.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 48, though written several years earlier, gets its subtitle from its use for an official Esterházy occasion: to welcome the widowed Empress Maria Theresia to the palace. We might imagine the first movement’s forceful fanfares being played as the powerful Empress and her entourage approached.

The Music

In Haydn’s time, music was rhetoric, and composers were orators. Haydn’s music could combine frenetic activity with high emotions, seducing, cajoling, and provoking listeners. This heady brew led later writers to connect him with the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and stress”) literary movement of Germany.

The symphony’s first movement throws us into a musical blizzard. An orchestral gunshot introduces the impossibly high braying of French horns. Strings tremble with a tension that barely lets up for the rest of the movement.

The second movement feels almost as if it is waking from sleep. For Haydn, emotions spurred composition—he would improvise music “according to whether my mood was sad or happy, serious or playful.” Violins damped with mutes weave languidly, leading a heavenly, heavily-drugged slow-dance.

After a grand minuet, the finale audibly chortles. This Haydn is a hoodwinker with a fiendish glint in his eye. Around every corner are quirks to tickle listener’s whims: ear-worms, jump-scares, laugh-lines.

First Performance Unknown. The manuscript dates to 1769.

First SLSO performance January 22, 1976, Jerzy Semkow conducting

Most recent SLSO performance June 2, 1982, Raymond Leppard conducting

Scoring 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, strings

Performance time Approximately 27 minutes


Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart photo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Mass in C Minor, K. 427

The opening has the tread of a procession. The pulse is slow. The mood is dark. We are embarking on a journey.

This journey will be long. It will visit the opera house and the church. It will embrace moments of calm and rage. It will seek depths and explode in glittering fireworks.

But mysteries remain. Mozart began this mass as a promise. Exactly how personal is it? An unfinished version was performed a single time, and then never again. Why was such an ambitious work never completed?

There are threads to untangle, threads of professional ambition, familial estrangement, private pain…

A Promise

Mozart escaped to Vienna in 1780. The move meant freedom from provincial Salzburg, from a difficult father, from hated employers. It meant the opportunity to build freelance work in a thriving metropolis.

It also meant that Mozart could love the way that he wanted to love. Soon after arrival, he became reacquainted with the Weber family, and fell (or was lightly pushed) towards Constanze Weber, the sister of a childhood sweetheart.

Wolfgang made a promise before their wedding: he would write Constanze a mass, one that would show off her wide-ranged soprano voice. It may have been intended as a wedding gift, or as a get-well present for Constanze following a bout of illness.

A Premiere

Salzburg loomed. Mozart’s father Leopold was unhappy with Wolfgang’s marriage to Constanze, and he gave the couple only his reluctant consent. Love and loyalty bound Mozart to his difficult father, and after the wedding a peace-making trip to Salzburg was planned.

The still-unfinished Mass in C minor was premiered on this trip. Its purpose may have been twofold: to seek approval of his father, and to silence hometown doubters. As if to say: Hear this ambitious work and think of what I’m now capable of. As if to say: Hear the voice of my wife and think of who I married.

Little about the Salzburg premiere is known. We know that Wolfgang did not complete the mass in time. We know that he and Constanze left Salzburg the following day. That he would never see his beloved sister again. That he would never step foot in Salzburg again.

Whatever goals the Mozarts had for this trip, they were not achieved.


After Salzburg, Mozart shelved the unfinished Mass. Its music was thrown on the recycling pile, later to be rushed into service on a different project. Why would Mozart leave such an ambitious work incomplete?

Theories abound. Was the vow considered complete? Was the work stained by family turbulence? Did the tragic death of the Mozart’s first child—whose birth and death occurred that summer—add a painful association?

Perhaps Mozart’s growing professional career simply pulled him away from an unpaid project. Perhaps a work on this grand scale was simply unperformable.


The Mass in C minor is unfinished. But exactly how unfinished?

The Kyrie and Gloria (through to the Cum Sancto Spiritu) are largely complete. Almost every other section is compromised in one way or another. The Hosanna and Sanctus are sketchy, missing parts. The Credo is written for full orchestra, but is entirely missing several movements. And the Agnus Dei was never written at all.

For two centuries, editors have tinkered. Some editions fill only what can be assumed, and some are more radical, rewriting and rethinking and adding. The edition performed in these concerts, edited by Franz Beyer, is something of a middle road.

Mozart’s final conception of the work is unknowable, unrealizable. We content ourselves with this torso, ragged and beautiful and expressive.


In conservative Salzburg, the Catholic Church was all-powerful. The young Mozart, who held lowly church positions, became a master of the mass, completing fifteen mass settings in several years.

But, to his frustration, the church insisted on very short mass settings, deploying only a small group of instruments. Released from the church’s straight jacket, Mozart built a large canvas for his Mass in C minor.

The length of the mass would have been extraordinary at the time, as would its forces, comprising one of Mozart’s largest orchestras: virtuoso wind parts, two viola parts, and three trombone parts.


Mozart grew up in a strict Salzburg home: conservative, Catholic. He was raised to believe that his primary responsibility in life was to God.

But what personal connection did Mozart feel to God? We can only guess, since his letters give away little sense of his personal faith: leaning conservative in one, leaning liberal in the next.

There are crumbs. After the huge religious output of his years in Catholic Salzburg, he rarely wrote religious music. His adopted city of Vienna observed greater religious tolerance, and he joined the liberal order of Freemasons.

Is the Mass in C minor an expression of firmly held Catholic faith? Or does it capture a more personal approach to God?

Older Times

Around this time, Mozart dove head-first into the music of older masters. He practiced their techniques, absorbed their sounds, and the Mass in C minor breathes the air of this earlier time, with Handel-inspired choruses, snapping rhythms, virtuoso vocal lines, and the ambitious scope of Bach’s Mass in B minor.

Mozart’s interest in the past had a more personal connection. “My dear Constanze…will listen to nothing but fugues,” Mozart wrote in a letter, referring to a complex musical form built of overlapping layers. “[S]he scolded me for not recording some of my compositions.”

Ambitious fugues were to form the centerpieces of the Mass in C minor. Another musical gift, perhaps, for his wife?

Opera Times

For more than a century, Italian opera composers mixed the secular and sacred in their masses. Mozart followed their lead.

One movement might sound like an old, dusty sacred work, the next like a melodramatic opera from the previous week. A giant orchestra gives color: trombones double the complex choir parts, skilled wind players match solo vocalists, two viola parts add richness.

Listening Guide

Note: “SATB” refers to choral part designations. S: soprano. A: alto. T: tenor. B: bass.

Kyrie (Andante moderato): soprano solo and SATB chorus

Full forces beg, terrified, for God’s mercy. A tender soprano aria, showing off lows and highs (written for Constanze Mozart’s voice), asks for Christ’s mercy. Later, the soprano’s silences await an answer, as if to say: Christ? Are you out there?

Gloria in excelsis Deo (Allegro vivace): SATB chorus

Choir and orchestra provide thrills and spills (listen to the virtuoso, voice-doubling trombone parts!) as Mozart looks back to the sounds of older composers, including a Hallelujah chorus quote that feels like an intentional hat-tip.

Laudamus te (Allegro aperto): soprano solo

Pulsing bass builds anticipation. The aria was written for Constanze, and it is tempting to think that perhaps Mozart is giving praise and thanks to God for a happy marriage.

Gratias (Adagio): SSATB chorus

The first of a series of darker, minor-key movements. Does this tortured chord progression really express thanksgiving?

Domine (Allegro moderato): duet for two sopranos.

The calm eye of the storm: two solo voices, quietly beseeching. Notice that each solo movement adds a voice: one in Laudamus te, two in Domine, three in…

Qui tollis (Largo): double chorus (SATB/SATB)

The choir, in pain, is split in two: in extreme circumstances, we become divided. Dense, dark chords put the emphasis on “sin” rather than the “mercy.”

Quoniam (Allegro): trio for two sopranos and tenor

Third solo movement: three soloists. The complex interweaving of these three parts shows Mozart’s “high art” for a text about the “most high.”

Jesu Christe (Adagio)—Cum Sancto Spiritu (alla breve): SATB

After an introduction, a long, winding fugue unfolds. Low voices begin, building a firm foundation. After complexity, after division, voices come together in a final unison statement.

Credo in unum Deum (Allegro maestoso, 3/4, C major): SSATB chorus

We are in the outdoors: cicadas buzz as a raucous wind and string bands play fanfares and a village choir sings their hearts out. A summer festival of belief.

Et incarnatus est (6/8, F major): soprano with obbligato flute, oboe, and bassoon

After the revelry, we zoom in on the manger. We might imagine village wind players joining a soprano as she kneels by the child. There is no original complete version of this movement, and each published version is quite different.

(Following the Et incarnatus est, several movements are entirely missing. They were likely never composed by Mozart.)

Sanctus (Largo, common time, C major): double chorus (SATB/SATB)

Benedictus (Allegro comodo, common time, A minor): quartet for two sopranos, tenor, bass

The grand and thrilling Sanctus and the intimate, four-soloist Benedictus are both a patchy jigsaw puzzle, requiring editorial surgery.

(Following the Sanctus and Benedictus, the Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem movements are missing. Mozart’s intended Mass would have ended very differently…)

First Performance August 25, 1783, in Salzburg, under Mozart’s direction

First SLSO performance December 1970, Walter Susskind conducting the University of Missouri Singers

Most recent SLSO performance January 21, 2006, Nicholas McGegan conducting; Cyndia Sieden, soprano; Mary Wilson, soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Christòpheren Nomura, baritone.

Scoring Two solo sopranos, solo tenor, and solo bass; mixed chorus; flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ, and strings

Performance time Approximately 72 minutes


Program Notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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