by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Between January, 1779, and November, 1780, Mozart composed for the Salzburg Cathedral four of his most celebrated, impressive and characteristically original church compositions. The Vesperae solennes de confessore non pontifice (K 339) is one of these four compositions. It is a magnificently concise and taut work which follows the liturgical directives of Mozart's reforming archbishop, Hieronymous Colloredo.
Previous investigation into the origins of these Solemn Vespers of a Confessor have concluded that the saint celebrated in the work is unknown, since no solid concrete evidence presently exists to render a decision. However, an examination of the circumstances surrounding its composition has stimulated my educated guess that Mozart created his Vespers to celebrate September 30, 1780, the feast of Saint Jerome. Saint Jerome is one of the four great fathers of the western church and the namesake of Hieronymous (Jerome) Colloredo, Mozart's employer and archbishop of Salzburg.
Vespers or Evensong is the centuries-old daily service of the church which is either sung or recited by clerics and members of religious orders at about 5:00 pm. It consists of five psalms with their antiphons, some brief lesson-prayers, and the Magnificat. "Solemn" Vespers implies the use of psalms assigned for the Sunday liturgy rather than those used on weekdays. "Of a Confessor" implies that the celebration of the feast is that of a non-martyr saint, either a bishop or not a bishop, whose feast has for special reasons been upgraded in liturgical celebration. Indeed, his setting of the service psalms is so concise that their performance would not have lasted much longer than the monastic chanting of the Office involved.
In these Solemn Vespers, Mozart, with his usual consummate skill, transformed the lengthy old Italian form of sung Vespers into one in which the whole psalm is treated with continuous symphonic unity. In this manner he gave to the exposition of the psalm as a whole a concise musical rendering of its essential religious and poetic spirit. He likewise satisfied the contemporary Austrian demand that composers of church music demonstrate mastery in the learned "ancient mode" as well as the popular "modern mode." Thus the fourth psalm, Laudate pueri, is elaborated in the learned Baroque contrapuntal manner with a theme derived from Michael Haydn's Requiem and which he subsequently used in the Kyrie of his own Requiem (K 626). On the other hand, in the fifth psalm, Laudate Dominum, he had recourse to the "modern" even operatic mode, further evidence that his age made little distinction between secular and sacred music. During Laudate Dominum, the soprano soloist soars over the chorus and orchestra in one of the most magical and ingratiatingly lovely melodies Mozart ever composed.
The first psalm, Dixit Dominus, and the concluding canticle, Magnificat, frame the rest of the psalms with their festive trumpet flourishes. Throughout the whole work choir and soloists, accompanied by an animated orchestra, alternate among themselves in a decidedly vigorous and joyful manner.
Alfred Beaujean asserts that "despite the brevity of form, Mozart employs for this Vesper cycle a remarkably wide range of musical ideas, techniques and sound." The impact of these Vespers as of the other religious works of those two years is summarized by the British musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon. "All four works . . . result in a very special category of Mozart's most brilliant maturity, not only because of their rich orchestration, the scintillation of style and dexterous combination of old and new elements, but also because they served to make his name widely known well into the 19th century before his great instrumental compositions came to be better known."
Joseph Haydn's Mass in D Minor (Missa in angustiis) was composed in July-August, 1798 the third of six great masses he composed between 1796 and 1802 for the Namesday celebration of Princess Esterhazy, wife of Haydn's patron. The mass is also known as the Nelson Mass because it was heard by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton in 1800 as they passed through Eisenstadt after Nelson's signal victory over the French fleet at Egypt's Abukir Bay in 1799. Like Haydn's earlier Mass in Time of War (Paukenmesse), this Mass in Time of Straightened Circumstances (to translate its Latin title) was composed during the height of the Napoleonic Wars and exhibits martial aspects, particularly in the famed trumpet fanfares of the Benedictus. Indeed, Haydn himself recounted in 1800 that as he was actually writing this Benedictus he received news of the great victory at Abukir Bay. From that moment, he could not banish from his imagination the image of the trumpet-blowing messenger. The idea of "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" so clearly related to the announcement of victory that Haydn added a trumpet obbligato to the Benedictus.
All of Haydn's masses vary in their instrumentation. The Nelson Mass is unique among them in that it is scored for three clarino trumpets in D, timpani, strings, continuo, organ, and SATB soloists and chorus. The woodwinds were omitted, their function being taken by the organ. This instrumentation is the definitive version even though Haydn approved the subsequent addition of woodwind parts. The total absence of a woodwind chorus, the solemn key of D Minor, and the acid biting texture of the trumpets all lend a specific kind of asperity and majesty to the music, giving it an almost Baroque feel.
The Nelson Mass is of the species called a "symphonic mass," as opposed to the previously customary "cantata mass" such as Bach's Mass in B Minor. In the "cantata mass," each significant phrase or sentence of the text was treated as a separate movement for either chorus or soloist. After completing all of his 104 symphonies by 1796, Haydn took the integrative principles of symphonic sonata form and applied them to larger portions of the mass text. The movements or larger sections of the mass became symphonically unified with a melodic character approximating the motif-like themes of a classical symphony. This style established a high degree of integration between singers and orchestra.
Haydn, in his Nelson Mass, says Robbins Landon, can arguably be said to have produced his greatest work. Certainly for majesty, power, exuberant exaltation, lyrical contemplation and poignant sorrow in the handling of the text, few compositions of the genre can surpass it.
Mozart's Ave verum, his best-known choral work, remains one of music's sublime motets. He composed this Eucharistic hymn on June 17 1791, probably for the Feast of Corpus Christi, to be conducted by Anton Stoll, choirmaster of the suburban Viennese church of Baden. Because of that church's limited resources Mozart scored it for chorus, strings and organ.