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“I made the promise in my heart of hearts and hope to be able to keep it. When I made it, my wife was not yet married; yet, as I was absolutely determined to marry her after her recovery, it was easy for me to make it [...] The score of half a Mass, which is still lying here waiting to be finished, is the best proof that I really made the promise.” (W. A. Mozart’s letter to his father, Vienna, 4 Jan 1783, trans. from Emily Anderson, ed., The Letters of Mozart and his Family, 3rd ed.). The work referred to in the letter was Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, known by the epithet “Great”. And yet although it showed promise, it was to remain forever “half a mass” – and it is still unclear why. For this work, in its surviving fragment, including over half of ordinarium missae (Kyrie, Gloria, half of Credo and Sanctus‑Benedictus, without the final Agnus Dei), is unlike any other composition by the young Mozart. It strikes the listener in particular with its masterful, complex, even neo‑Baroque polyphony – and we know that Mozart did not have great respect for it. This might be one of the reasons why he abandoned the piece – perhaps he came to the conclusion that writing in modo antico was against his own nature and also the spirit of the times. The second possible reason was that the chances that this monumental composition would be performed were quite remote. In 1782, Emperor Joseph II introduced a decree which limited, inter alia, funds for the Church. The monastic annulment and the drastic curtailment of investment were accompanied by restrictions in liturgical extravagance, regulated by detailed laws.
In its general outline, Mass in C Minor exemplifies the cantata (Neapolitan) mass style, with its clear division into individual parts – arias, ensembles and choirs. The solo parts are almost operatic in style, although still quite conservative, which was most probably a result of a conscious, archaic stylisation – this is particularly evident in the polyphonic Quoniam tercet. Especially impressive is the long and contemplative aria Et incarnatus est – the last section of the unfinished Credo. Its Arcadian blissfulness, tenderness and birdlike dialogues between the soloist and wind instruments are, without doubt, a manifestation of Mozart’s deep affection for his young wife, who may have been its first performer.