Mozart and mercy

A wonderful aspect of our electronic age is that we have access – in church, concert halls, homes, cars, literally anywhere – to the thousands of hymns, chants, songs and choral works that span the years and church seasons and help us “sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts” (Eph. 5:19). Currently I am deeply engaged, at home and in symphony chorus rehearsals, with Mozart’s Mass in C Minor (“The Great”). 

Now heard primarily as concert works, musical masses were previously written for the Roman Catholic Mass service. The five “ordinary” (weekly) Mass parts have texts to which all Christians can assent. The Kyrie fervently prays: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison: “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy.” The Gloria then erupts in a joyous song of praise: “Glory to God in the highest . . . .” The Credo confesses the entire Nicene Creed. The Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) magnifies the “Lord God of Sabaoth.” Shifting back to our own dire need for reconciliation to God, the Agnus Dei addresses Christ himself: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us . . . and grant us peace. Amen.” 

Mozart probably wrote the C Minor Mass for his wife, Constanza, in honor of their marriage. It was one of his 18 Masses, but, mysteriously, the only one he never finished. Yet, Mozart being Mozart, he conducted a complete performance of it in 1783 by filling in the unfinished movements with musical sketches and likely with other previously composed music. Despite it being unfinished, the C Minor Mass is now considered one of the three greatest masses in Western music. As for Mozart the man, I will note here that the depiction of him in the 1984 movie Amadeus as a mindboggling genius with off-putting immature vulgarity and promiscuity is a myth, as was a jealous rivalry between him and the minor composer Antonio Salieri, and Salieri’s lethal poisoning of Mozart.

After that one performance led by Mozart himself, the C Minor languished unheard and unknown until 1902 when conductor Alois Schmitt undertook to complete it. In the last few decades a handful of fine musicologists have reconstructed their own (better) completions of the work. There are now dozens of recordings of the Mass in its several versions – an embarrassment of riches! 

Shadows fall
What is so singular about Mozart? The 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth thought a great deal about that. He said, “Mozart’s music always sounds unburdened, effortless and light. This is why it unburdens, releases and liberates us.” Barth also observed, “Mozart’s music is free of all exaggeration, of all sharp breaks and contradictions. The sun shines but does not blind, does not burn or consume. Heaven arches over the earth, but it does not weigh it down; it does not crush or devour it.” And: “Heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy . . . Mozart simply contains and includes all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of ‘balance’ or ‘indifference’ – it is a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present.” 

As for me, in the last several months my chronic illness exhibited itself in acute and relentless fatigue. I felt tested. God seemed absent, or at least silent. But during that time, he gave me a gift: the Kyrie of the C Minor Mass, with its peculiarly Mozartian fusion of melancholy and profound hope. It became my own prayer for mercy. A prayer – thanks be to God! – he has now answered.  


listen online

On Youtube search “Mozart Mass in C Minor Hogwood.” 


  • Marian Van Til

    Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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