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Mozart’s “Church Sonatas” or “Epistle Sonatas”
Most of the works on this programme are drawn from Mozart’s collection of “Church Sonatas” or “Epistle Sonatas” – titles which at first sight might suggest a rather austere programme. On the contrary, these works clearly demonstrate Mozart’s apparent lack of any sharp distinction between sacred and secular music; they have an airy, joyous and tuneful style which would have been as suitable to the Court as to the Church.
Mozart’s appointment, at age sixteen, as Konzermeister at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg in July 1772 brought on a flurry of creativity: eight symphonies, four divertimentos, and some substantial sacred works. That first year also saw the first three “Epistle” or “Church” Sonatas.
An integral part of the Mass, these short instrumental pieces were to fill the gap between the readings of the Epistle and the Gospel. Usually Mozart would have improvised on the organ himself, but for some occasions when an instrumental ensemble or an orchestra was present, he would write an “Epistle” Sonata for this purpose.
Seventeen of these Sonatas from the period of 1772-1780 survive. Besides their considerable musical worth, they offer a fascinating insight in Mozart’s development as a composer. Despite the limitation of length with which this form was saddled – Mozart wrote in 1776 to Padre Martini that ‘a Mass, with the whole Kyrie, Gloria, Epistle Sonata, Offertory or Motet, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, must last no more than three-quarters of an hour’ – we can see marked developments over these eight years.
The majority of these Sonatas are scored for two violins, cello and organ continuo. But over the eight years these sonatas increase in complexity of structure, and we can watch the function of the organ develop from that of pure continuo, via an obbligato accompaniment, into (by his last sonata, K.366) a full-blown solo role. Mozart held the organ in high regard, writing that ‘to my mind and ears, the organ is the king of all instruments’. By 1780, the influence of the early piano concertos is clear, and the accompanying instruments (for they are by now relegated to this function) are entirely subservient to the soloist; they are even silenced at the unnotated cadenza just before the end. Mozart must surely have written this dazzling solo part for himself.
Three of the later Church Sonatas (not on tonight’s programme) are scored for a much larger ensemble, including violins, basso continuo, organ solo, oboes, horns, trumpet and timpani – and it is almost certain that these three sonatas were written for specific Masses.
The lure of Vienna, by 1780, spelled the end of the Epistle Sonatas...