Thursday, May 22, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 2 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Mozart: Kyrie in D-minor, K341 (1781)

Mozart composed his Kyrie in D-minor forty-two years after Bach composed his in G-minor. Like Bach's Kyrie, Mozart's is in three sections. Unlike Bach, Mozart marks the transitions from one section to the next with clear cadences, that is, definitive harmonic events in which music settles into a home key. This is typical of the "Classical" style of composition, in which Mozart excelled.

Here is one page from Mozart's score:

At a glance we see lots of notes, but also significant portions of clear space. We can literally see in the score something of the transparency of Mozart's music. Mozart is never turbid, never dense.

As the chorus sings "Kyrie eleison" in broad phrases, the instruments do not imitate or elaborate in the style of Bach. Rather the instruments embellish and adorn.

In the first three measures of this page, for example, the violins embellish with a running pattern, and in the final four measures with a skippy pattern in wide intervals. The clarinets sing a smooth, sustained duet. The oboes and bassoons play a perky rhythmic motif—oboes in an upward direction, bassoons in a downward. Meanwhile, flutes and horns sustain a single note in octaves.

We might expect such instrumental illuminations to compete with or distract from the choral presentation of the text. In fact they vitalize Mozart's presentation, without diluting the music's devotional tone.

I hear Mozart's Kyrie as a devout offering to God. This is not always the atmosphere associated with Mozart's settings of the Mass (he composed almost twenty of them). Some of the earlier settings sound more decorative than devout. But in this Kyrie I hear solemn devotion. Throughout the opening twenty measures, and again in the twelve concluding measures, I hear a repeating pattern of reverencing bows, in both the strings and the chorus, expressive of veneration, obeisance, worship.

Mozart frequently attended Mass, and sometimes Confession. A friend reported Mozart's description of Catholic liturgy as a "mystical sanctuary" for an "uplifted heart."1 Letters to his father disclose what seem to me genuine religious convictions. He writes of being calmed, consoled, and uplifted by prayer.2 For the blessings of life, he writes, "I thank my Creator every day."3

On the occasion of his mother's death he writes:
God is ever before my eyes. I realize His omnipotence and I fear His anger; but I also recognize His love, His compassion and His tenderness towards His creatures. He will never forsake His own. If it is according to His will, so let it be according to mine.4

Mozart composes his Kyrie in the somber hues of minor. Yet about a minute into the first section, Kyrie eleison, he introduces the brighter hues of major. Then in the midst of the second section, Christe eleison, he returns to minor.

I think that Mozart positions his major and minor for a theological reason. In Christian theology, Christ's appearing is a source of hope. In the opening of the Mass, Kyrie, Lord, is distant, unapproachable, intimidating, and minor tonality seems appropriate. In the second section, Christe, Christ, is human, accessible, compassionate, and major tonality seems right.

But while this minor/major pattern is frequent in musical settings of the Kyrie during the Baroque and Classical periods, it is too simple for Mozart. In Catholic faith, Christ is both human and divine. Perhaps this is why Mozart uses both minor and major in the Kyrie section, and both major and minor in the Christe section.

Could this also be why in section two and on into section three Mozart freely interchanges the two texts, Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison? In Catholic faith, Christos is Kyrios, Christ is Lord.

I find myself comparing Mozart's Kyrie, with its transparency and harmonic colorations, to a cathedral window. The chorus presents the window's subject: humankind's plea for mercy. Harmonic modulations are the window's hues.

The embellishing instrumental lines are the window's tracery, that is, the ornamental stonework that frames a window. A window's tracery can at first escape our notice. But as we look carefully, tracery reveals its own beauty—not competing with its window, but presenting it with modesty and grace.

So, I feel, Mozart offers his Kyrie to God.


One might especially listen for (a) the reverencing gestures of violins and chorus in the opening twenty measures, and again in the closing twelve measures; (b) Mozart's ever-elegant shifts from minor to major and major to minor; and (c) adorning "tracery" in the orchestra's inner voices.

Recordings of the Mozart Kyrie are available free at for any who sign up. I particularly enjoy The Monteverdi Choir's performance. Click on Browse, and type in the Search box  "Mozart, Kyrie in D minor, K.341, Monteverdi Choir"; then click on Show All Results. (Don't confuse the K341 Kyrie with the K626 Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem Mass.) 
(Continued in Part 3 of this 4-part posting)

1. See Hans K√ľng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (William B. Eerdmans, 1993), pp.24–5.
2. Robert Spaethling, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life (W. W. Norton, 2000), p.159; see also p.175.
3. Ibid., p.389.
4. Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (W. W. Norton, 1985), p.341.


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