About this Recording
8.573092 - MOZART, W.A.: Missa brevis, K. 194 and 275 / Regina coeli, K. 127 (St Albans Cathedral Choirs, Sinfonia Verdi, A. Lucas)
English 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Missa brevis in D major • Regina coeli in B flat major • Missa brevis in B flat major

 

Born in Salzburg in 1756, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy, both as composer and instrumentalist. His father Leopold, a violinist who had published an important treatise on violin technique, rose to become Vice- Kapellmeister in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg, but sacrificed the furthering of his career to nurture and promote the extraordinary gifts of his son. Mozart’s earliest compositions and public performances can be dated to 1761. Over the next decade the family embarked on a series of European tours, intended to demonstrate the talents of Wolfgang and his elder sister Nannerl. Although the financial outcome was dubious, the educational experience was profound for the young composer and his talents were acclaimed throughout musical and royal circles. In 1773 Mozart began work as a musician at the Salzburg court, under the new Archbishop, Hieronymus von Colloredo. Seeking to reform the court, Colloredo restricted the musical provision, much to Mozart’s frustration. In 1777, refused leave of absence, Mozart relinquished his position and over the next couple of years fruitlessly sought employment in Paris and Mannheim. Reinstated in 1779 to the court in a new rôle, he undertook his duties somewhat half-heartedly, pursuing external projects such as the successful staging in Munich of his opera Idomeneo. In 1781, summoned to Vienna—where Colloredo and his court were celebrating the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne—Mozart was urged by his father (still serving the court) to be reconciled with the Archbishop. He refused and was dismissed, choosing to lead a precarious freelance life in the city. In the last decade of his life, and despite success in the opera house and composing many of his finest works, he was beset by financial difficulties. He died in December 1791 just as his German opera, The Magic Flute, was achieving great success.

Salzburg had a curious history as an independent prince-bishopric governed by an Archbishop within the Holy Roman Empire. In the seventeenth century composers such as Muffat and Biber had been employed by the court, which boasted almost eighty musicians. Colloredo was elected in 1772 and his reforms, which responded to the prevailing ideas of the Enlightenment, aimed to save the court from the excesses that had almost brought financial ruin. Most musically significant was his requirement for shorter Mass settings. In a letter to Giovanni Battista Martini, a renowned theorist with whom he had studied during his travels in Italy, Mozart explained the difficulties he faced:

Our church music is very different from that of Italy, since a Mass with the whole Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle sonata, the Offertory or motet, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei must not last longer than three quarters of an hour. This applies even to the most Solemn Mass spoken by the Archbishop himself. Special study is required for this kind of composition, particularly as the Mass must have a full contingent of instruments—trumpets, drums and so forth.

Nevertheless, Mozart composed around a dozen Masses, and wrote prolifically in many other genres during his Salzburg years. He had important models to draw on, especially the sacred and secular works of his senior colleague and Kapellmeister Michael Haydn, whose works (later occasionally misattributed to Mozart) proved to be an important influence.

Regina coeli in B flat, K 127, though composed in Salzburg, predates by a year Mozart’s employment in the Archbishop’s court. An extended setting of the short text of the Marian antiphon for Easter, it is scored for strings, with horns and oboes (the latter replaced by flutes in the central movement) and is one of three settings of the text the composer made. The lively opening movement is characterised by busy passage-work in the strings, accompanied by high horn-writing and elaborate contrapuntal vocal writing. The second movement, marked Andante, opens with a beautifully-wrought soprano solo melody, reminiscent of Mozart’s most accomplished operatic arias. The chorus returns twice, proclaiming Resurrexit sicut dixit in a dignified manner. This leads directly into the Adagio-marked Ora pro nobis, sung by the solo soprano. This exquisitely-crafted section demonstrates Mozart’s supreme skill at writing for solo voice, its ornate phrases and unexpected melodic turns exploring the full vocal range whilst underscoring the suppliant text. The short final movement is an energetic Alleluia, alternating rhythmic choral passages and coloratura phrases for the soloist.

The Missa brevis in D, K 194, was composed in 1774, and, as the title suggests, is an example of a short Mass, composed for a Sunday or smaller feast, which conforms to Colloredo’s liturgical requirements. The accompaniment, a standard scoring for Mozart’s smaller works, comprises two violin parts, basso continuo (organ, violoncello, double bass and bassoon), with trombones doubling the alto, tenor and bass choral parts. The brief text of the opening Kyrie affords Mozart some opportunity for contrapuntal writing in the voices, but the longer texts of the Gloria and Credo demonstrate the composer writing in a more resourceful, predominantly syllabic style. These longer movements do not lack inspiration—by introducing solo passages, interesting harmonic turns and a wealth of instrumental textures Mozart is able to incorporate a remarkable range of contrasts in a short span. The solemn central Et incarnatus est is particularly noteworthy; it conveys in a few bars the solemnity of the incarnation and agony of the crucifixion. The Benedictus, typically for the period, is the longest section of solo writing, before repeating the Osanna first heard in the majestic Sanctus. The concluding Agnus Dei is the most expansive movement, beginning sombrely in B minor but concluding with an energetic Dona nobis pacem in the home key of D major.

Mozart’s duties in Salzburg latterly required him to be court organist, but although he was renowned as a fine exponent of the instrument (which he declared ‘the king of instruments’), he composed little for the organ, preferring to improvise. The Allegro and Andante (Fantasia) in F minor, K 608, is widely regarded as Mozart’s finest work for the organ. It is a late work with an unusual genesis. Composed in 1790, it was a commission from a Viennese eccentric who used the pseudonym Joseph Müller. Written for performance by a tiny mechanical organ in a clock—with only one rank of 4’ pipes—it was to serve as ‘background music’ to a private gallery of art and waxworks. Mozart responded, perhaps ironically, by producing an arresting work in a severe key. The outer sections are in bold French overture style; each is followed by a fugue, and there is a touching and delicate central Andante section. The music transcends the limitations of its intended performance, and has become a cornerstone of the organ repertory.

Probably composed in 1777, the Missa brevis in B flat, K 275, is conceived on a similar scale to the D major Mass, K 194 and has identical scoring. The use of solo passages is, however, more extensive. The elegant Kyrie alternates solo and choral writing; the Gloria opens with an unusual chromatic descent in the voice parts before settling into a graceful triple time. The lengthy text of the Credo is set in a highly efficient yet stylish manner, characterised by fast semiquaver figurations in the string writing; again there is pause for reflection at Et incarnatus est, marked Adagio, which is sung by the soloists. The Sanctus is similar in approach to that of K 194; each vocal part enters in succession in a stately manner, and the music of the Osanna is repeated after the Benedictus, in which the soprano solo is another example of Mozart’s extraordinary melodic gift. The Agnus Dei is the longest movement, and begins in the serious key of G minor, whilst the Dona nobis pacem is—customarily for the period—animated and in the tonic major key. This vivacious final section takes the form of a gavotte, featuring extended solo passages.


© Tom Winpenny 2012


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