Christmas 2014, Pope Francis, and Mozart

I had the privilege of attending this year’s Christmas Eve Mass with Pope Francis at St. Peter’s in Rome. Beginning with the traditional Kalenda (Christmas Proclamation) and ending with the Sistine Chapel Choir’s now-standard rendition of Adeste Fideles, the liturgy breathed a stately majesty worthy of the Feast. The chants of the Missa cum Jubilo and Palestrina’s Laetentur Caeli resounded throughout the Vatican with all the solemn joy of Christmas.

As forseen in the Novus Ordo rubrics for Christmas and Annunciation (and all Sundays in the Traditional Latin Mass), we knelt at the Creed’s mention of the Incarnation (et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, etc.). In past Papal Christmas Masses, this section of the Creed is sung to a slightly embellished polyphonic setting, a bit longer in duration than if it were sung in the normal chant melody. This is meant to encourage a briefly extended period of reflection on the Incarnation while kneeling.

This year, however, we did not have that brief extended polyphonic setting. Instead, we got the Et incarnatus est of Mozart’s famous Great Mass In C Minor.

I will preface the following comments by expressing my supreme admiration for Mozart. He is perhaps the greatest musical mind of all time and, personally, my favorite composer. Benedict XVI and Francis have both expressed the same high regard for him; Papa Ratzinger holds Mozart as his favorite, while Francis once said of the Great Mass in C Minor, “It is unsurpassable; it brings you to God!”– è insuperabile; ti porta a Dio!

Surprising, therefore, but not entirely strange was the use of the Great Mass in C Minor (if only for a short section of the Creed). In fact, the last use of Mozart in a Papal liturgical setting was the 1985 Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, in which the Vienna Philharmonic executed the mighty Krönungsmesse. For anyone not familiar with Mozart’s works (especially Masses), these are compositions brimming with complexity. The liturgical texts are broken further, alternating between choral pieces and arias (sung by a soloist or a few soloists). Yet no part, whether vocal or instrumental, can be sung or played by amateurs–a high level of virtuosity is required of any participating musician.

Arias are especially meant to highlight the talents of operatic singers. Single syllables are often extended for soaring, staccato, melismatic colorature which test the limits of the human voice. Mozart puts the singer’s vocal chords through a veritable obstacle course, almost as if trying to attrit the signer into submission. What seems like torture to the singer, however, becomes sheer beauty for the listener, and when combined with the orchestral backing, the result is sublime.

Et incarnatus est is one such aria from the Great Mass in C Minor. A single soprano, supported by the orchestra, repeats that single line from the Creed multiple times, sung in an ever changing and difficult melody, in an exposition of her virtuosity. When she is not singing, various instruments from all orchestra sections alternate in playing gorgeously melodic lines. From a purely musical standpoint, the execution of this piece at Mass was flawless; from a liturgical standpoint, however, I believe that the choice to use Mozart was disastrous. For context, here is footage of the Creed at this same Mass, including Mozart’s et incarnatus est, no doubt a beautiful piece in its own right.

A line that would take less than 10 seconds to chant in the melody of Credo III (which we used for the rest of the Creed) is therefore extended by Mozart for over 8 minutes. Even the usual embellished polyphonic settings rarely extend to more than one minute. To be clear, my objection is not so much that Mozart’s setting is too long– Mass lasts as long as Mass lasts– but that the time was spent on a piece of music meant more for performance than for prayer according to the true spirit of the liturgy. What added spiritual value does the soprano’s complex melodic runs give when the text is repeated for the fourth or fifth time?

When St. Pius X and the fathers of the Liturgical Movement undertook to restore the liturgy, operatic Masses (like those of Mozart) were one of many targets of the reform. Far too often, the musicians and soloists became the focus– and how could they not? When music is consciously written in the style of an entertainment genre (opera), the performers inevitably come to the fore, even if the textual content is religious. The music usurps the priority of the liturgical text, and the talents of individual musicians overshadow the essence of the Mass. Just as the Mass requires sacred texts developed from within the tradition of the Church, so too does Mass require music developed from the same tradition, not music adapted from secular entertainment. This is why Pius X and the Liturgical Movement advocated the recovery of Gregorian chant– precisely as an antidote to the operatic Masses. When the Second Vatican Council decreed that Gregorian chant is liturgiae romanae proprium and should hold principem locum, it was an implicit yet clear denunciation of operatic Masses, echoing Pius X.

This is not a criticism of the soprano who sang at St. Peter’s, nor of the orchestra who backed her. The execution of the piece was excellent, though completely out of place at Mass. There is a perception that, as long as the textual content is religious, any kind of music is acceptable at Mass, as if the type of music chosen for liturgy is simply a matter of a priest or choirmaster’s personal taste. To support that perception, it seems that Pope Francis’ predilection for the Great Mass in C Minor won the day. By contrast, it is a most telling sign that Benedict XVI, an unabashed Mozart fan, never used a Mozart liturgical piece in any Mass of his eight-year pontificate. Similarly, although I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Beatles, I would nevertheless be loathe to hear “Let it Be” at Mass, be it on a Marian feast or not.

Mozart is unequalled as a composer, but his works have a proper place, and it is not at Mass. Conversely, Mass is the proper place for specific types of music: Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, as decreed by the Second Vatican Council. Let performance music remain in the performance hall; let true liturgical music remain in the liturgy.

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