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EXPLORING MUSIC: ''Polyphonic Prestidigitation''

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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I believe the first and only recorded representation of a Mozart Mass on American records in the days of acoustical recording was a movement from what was said to be his 12th such work. I once owned it: it was a black label Victor performed by the Trinity Choir, on the reverse of their rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah. The London publishing firm of Novello gave the Mass its number and Kochel listed it in the appendix to his catalog as K. Anh. 232. The fact is, however, that it's a phony. Mozart didn't write it. I don't think that even now anyone knows who did.

Exclusive of that work, Kochel accepts as genuine 20 Masses including the unfinished Requiem, the last number on his list. But the New Grove reduces the number to 18, it hav­ing been determined that K. 115 and K. 116 were probably the work of Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father. Grove also indicates that there are some doubts about K. 140, but in­cludes it in the canon. And then there is K. 427, "the great C minor," which, like super­market ducks, has small parts missing, for unexplained reasons. As far as we know then, Mozart left in various stages of completion 18 Masses. (I am haunted by a dim memory that 1 read somewhere recently that K. 139, the "Orphanage" Mass of 1768, has been prov­ed not Mozart's; but an autograph score ex­ists, though it could, I suppose, be something he copied. But we won't worry about it.)

Anyway, this is a day of rejoicing in my household--or in my part of it at least. Forty years ago, out of pure whimsy perhaps, I pro­mised myself that I should one day have all of Mozart's music in my record library. I say "whimsy" because in 1944 the likelihood of achieving such a goal seemed remote. And perhaps I may never achieve it, for there are some bitsy things--an infantile aria here, a canon there-that continue to elude me. But for some years now the only major gaps have been the Masses, K. 258 and K. 262. I think one of you wrote me a year or so ago that he had concluded that one of them (I forget which) had simply never been recorded.

Mozart, as you know, lived to be 35. Yet he wrote all of his Masses but the final four between the ages of 12 and

21--14 in a nine­-year period. Does this indicate a weakening of religious faith in his later years? Not likely. The "great C minor" was a very personal matter, a work to celebrate (in his father's presence) in Salzburg his Vienna marriage to Constanze Weber the year previous. And the legend has it that the mysterious commission­ing of the Requiem struck him as a divine war­ning. But though Mozart no doubt went through the formalities and probably con­sidered himself a reasonably good Christian, he was hardly devout.

It is significant, however, that all but the first two and last two Masses were written (and undoubtedly performed) in Salzburg. There Mozart was in the employ, and under the orders, of the prince-archbishop, who was as likely to order up a Mass pronto as he was to order up a dinner. Under the cir­cumstances, and considering that the young man and his employer were none too fond of one another, it is not surprising that the former did not always express the last measure of spirituality in such works.

Both of the two Masses here in question are in the key of C, a fact that has caused some confusion. We are not sure exactly when K. 258 was written. Einstein says "December 1776" but, as we shall see, that is ques­tionable. It is a Missa brevis, or short Mass, which means a straightforward setting of the movements without repetition, arias, or other interruptions. Archbishop Colloredo was all for short services, and here Mozart is very businesslike, getting the whole thing over with in 17.5 minutes in Herbert Kegel's reading.

In December 1776 Leopold notes that a C major Mass was written for the installation of one Count Spaur as bishop of Chrysopel. It has long been assumed that this was K. 258, since known as the ''Spaur Mass.'· But K. 262 is much longer and more elaborate (though still "brevis") and it is now believed that this is the real "Spaur Mass." It is obviously ceremonial, and the composer uses the op­portunity for a good deal of polyphonic prestidigitation, including two grandiose fugues at the ends of the Gloria and the Credo. In both cases, I suspect, craftsmanship rather than inspiration is at work. But then, as I have long argued, there is no such thing as "bad" Mozart.

Review of Mozart's Missa Brevis in C Major K.258, Missa longa in C Major, K262 pge 53

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