Mozart’s religious music is actually the least important part of his output. His relations to the church were troubled, and unlike Bach he lived in a milieu where the profoundest ideas of the time were not practiced in church. At the same time there are remarkable, profound church works that will never be forgotten. While in the service of the unpleasant and autocratic Archbishop Colloredo, Bishop of Salzburg, Mozart bridled at his official duties and wrote some of his most remarkably ho-hum works. His very last Salzburg liturgical work, the Vesperae solennes de Confessore (Solemn Vespers) K. 339, is, however, a masterpiece and is a foreshadowing of the two great unfinished religious works of his Vienna period, the Mass in C Minor and the Requiem.
One of two settings Mozart made of this service, K.339 was intended for the special celebration of an undisclosed saint's day (the "confessor" of the title). Its six movements would have been interspersed with readings and other formalities appropriate for a festive religious occasion. The text consists of five Psalms and the Magnificat canticle that concludes every Vespers service. As required by Mozart's conservative employer, Archbishop Colloredo, each Psalm is set as a continuous movement, as opposed to being divided into separate arias, ensembles, and choruses in the operatic style invading church music at that time.
The work shows all of the stylistic tendencies of the Austrian Baroque, bright and shining brilliant Allegros, and an impressive nod to Austrian liturgical counterpoint as practiced by the early eighteenth century composer, Fux. Just before the final dazzling Magnificat is an inward and luscious Laudate Dominum for soprano and chorus, a work beautiful enough for a place in any of his operas but somehow breathing an inward spiritual air perfectly appropriate to a church service. After his discovery of Bach and Handel, both of whom were represented in the library of Baron von Swieten in Vienna, Mozart would delve more deeply into the possibilities of liturgical counterpoint, but this wonderful work is an important monument on that particular journey.
© Craig Smith with additions by Ryan Turner