Although Mozart had written a number of masses while employed by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus von Colloredo, he had left the prince’s court for over a year when he began to compose the Mass in C minor in the summer of 1782. Mozart’s only correspondence on the mass only adds to the mystery. In a letter dated January 14, 1783 to his father Leopold, Mozart wrote elliptically that “the score of half of a Mass, which is still lying here waiting to be finished, is the best proof that I really made the promise.” While the promise Mozart alluded to in the letter has traditionally been interpreted as an olive branch to his father, who had not approved of Mozart’s recent marriage, or as an ode of thanksgiving to his wife Constanze, recent research hints that Mozart had promised his father that he would reconcile with Archbishop Colloredo. According to this theory, the mass was meant as a peace offering.
However, this solution raises more questions than answers. The reforms of Joseph II — he of “too many notes” — had severely curtailed the performances of large-scale, concerted church music. Even the incomplete mass (the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus) would have exceeded the length of a typical, 45-minute service. Furthermore, the Mass in C minor was written in “cantata-style”, which divided the text of the Mass into small individual movements split between soloists and chorus. However, performances of such masses had become rare by the 1780s, with preference given to “through-composed” masses where the text is sung without interruption. Therefore, it is unlikely that the finished parts of the mass were premiered on October 26, 1783, as once believed. Indeed, available sources mention the performance of a “mass” by Mozart, not necessarily a new one. Although there is a possibility that the Mass in C minor was written on a commission for a Viennese “musical congregation” that went defunct before Mozart completed the work, evidence for this has yet to come to light.
Given the current dearth of information, we are left with one possibility: Mozart wrote the mass to demonstrate to himself his mastery of counterpoint, as practiced by George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Shortly after Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he became acquainted with Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who introduced the young composer to the scores of Handel and Bach, including Messiah (which Mozart would later reorchestrate) and the Mass in B minor, BWV 232. Indeed, the Mass in C minor demonstrates a new breadth and subtlety in Mozart’s fugal writing.
But why did Mozart never complete the mass? While Mozart re-texted the Kyrie and Gloria for the sacred cantata Davide penitente, K. 469, he left the Credo unfinished before the crucifixion text and left only a few sketches for the Agnus Dei. In addition, the Sanctus is partially lost as well. If the Mass in C minor was written on commission, it would have made sense to abandon it after the commission was no longer forthcoming. Perhaps Mozart felt that he had mastered what he could from Bach and Handel and no longer was compelled finish the composition. Regardless, musicologists have tried to complete the work over the past 200 years. The fragmentary mass was first printed in 1840 by Johann Anton André, who had purchased Mozart’s estate in 1800; the Viennese conductor Joseph Drechsler performed a completion (now lost) in 1847. The mass languished in relative obscurity until Alois Schmitt, a conductor from Dresden, and musicologist Ernst Lewicki published their completion of the mass in 1901. While Schmitt and Lewicki’s version became the standard edition for performances until the 1950s,it was criticized for bloating the orchestra to romantic proportions and clumsily adapting other Mozart works to fill in the missing sections.
It was not until American musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon created a new edition of the surviving parts in 1956 for the publishing house Eulenberg that the supremacy of the Schmitt-Lewicki edition was challenged. Since then, a number of completions have come into circulation, including ones by Helmut Eder (for Bärenreiter; this is the one being sung by BCCO), Richard Maunder (for Oxford University Press), Philip Wilby (for Novello) Robert Levin (for Carus-Verlag) and most recently Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (for Musikproducktion Höflich). While these completions differ greatly in musical material, all share a greater fidelity to Mozart’s style, as well as greater understanding and use of sketch and other source material.
Notes prepared by Derek Tam, BCCO Assistant Conductor