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Catholic Composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

His Catholic faith was the guiding influence throughout the life of possibly the greatest composer in the history of music.

A Christmas ornament featuring the likeness of famed 18th-century Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart hangs from an outdoor Christmas tree along a busy Vienna street in December 2014. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

In the history of classical music, there are figures who stand out above all the rest. While there are seemingly countless composers who left indelible marks, or who created works of indescribable beauty and poignancy, there are a select few who clearly are in their own league. One of these, to be sure, is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

There is much about Mozart that is common knowledge, but there is also much misinformation. Popular portrayals, such as in the film Amadeus (a fantastic film in most ways, even if it depended on pseudo-history and questionable sources), exaggerate a great deal for dramatic effect, and often miss the reality. One feature of this man’s personality and character is commonly downplayed or even eliminated altogether: his deep, profound, and ever-abiding Catholic faith.

Mozart’s life

Born on January 27, 1756, he was baptized the next day as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, at St. Rupert’s Cathedral in Salzburg. He would later drop the Johannes Chrysostomus (added by custom because he was born on the feast of St. John Chrysostom), and change the Greek Theophilus to the Latin equivalent Amadeus (one who loves God, or one who is loved by God).

Wolfgang and his sister were raised in a devout and strictly observant Catholic household. Their parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, encouraged family devotions and prayer, fasting, regular attendance at Mass, frequent confession, the veneration of saints, and other typically Catholic devotions.

Leopold was a moderately successful composer himself, and a teacher of music, working as a court musician for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. While Leopold and Anna Maria had seven children, all died in infancy except Anna Maria (affectionately called “Nannerl”) and young Wolfgang.

Herr and Frau Mozart were always concerned for the spiritual well-being of their children. Leopold once wrote to his wife and son on their way to Paris in 1777, “God must come first! From His hands we receive our temporal happiness; and at the same time we must think of our eternal salvation.” These words were written out of fear that Wolfgang had become “a little lax about confession.” Leopold saw it as his duty to impart to his children the truth of the Catholic faith, and to instill in them a personal piety that they would maintain throughout their lives.

Leopold took to teaching Nannerl music from an early age, and she showed prodigious talents immediately. However, these paled in comparison to the gifts displayed by Wolfgang. Nannerl recalled that by the age of three, Wolfgang would sit at the keyboard picking out consonant intervals, and by age four he could faultlessly play minuets and other pieces, beginning to compose original pieces at the age of four or five.

He began to experiment on the violin, and continued in his composing, which surprised even his father. As the astounding gifts of his children became evident, Leopold gave up composing to focus on teaching them. He once wrote, “God has endowed my children with such genius that, laying aside my duty as a father, my ambition urges me to sacrifice all else to their education.”

Beginning in 1762, the family toured Europe several times over many years, displaying the children as prodigies all over the continent. They played for kings and queens, emperors, popes, and everyone who would listen.

These trips exposed Mozart to other musicians, other composers, other musical styles. One major influence he encountered on these trips was Johann Christian Bach, son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach. Johann Christian would have converted to Catholicism from his native Lutheranism around the time that the two met. He not only had a significant influence on Mozart musically, but he also served as a touchstone (along with Haydn and others) of prominent composers who lived out their deep Catholic faith.

Mozart’s talents continued to flourish, and at the age of 14, having mastered his art, he travelled to Italy, as many great musicians aspired to do. There is a famous story that while on this trip, the young Mozart heard a performance of the Miserere by Allegri and copied it down perfectly from memory. Manuscripts of this piece were not available, and it was considered in poor taste—even morally wrong—to copy the piece. But the astonishing feat of recording it from memory earned Mozart praise rather than scorn.

Mozart met, fell in love with, and married a young woman named Constanze Weber. She was described as beautiful, kind-hearted, clever, modest, and economical. They married at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Mozart was 26 and Constanze was 18.

Constanze would give birth to four sons and two daughters. All but two of the sons, Karl Thomas and Franz Xavier Wolfgang, died.

Their life was marked by endless poverty. But their faith never wavered. And the flame in their marriage never flickered. Reading their letters to each other, one has the impression of a couple who fell in love with each other over and over again, never letting the many challenges and hardships of their life dampen their affection for one another, or their devotion.

Mozart died on December 5, 1791. On his deathbed, he finally began to receive recognition. But it seems he sought recognition not for his own glory, but rather to allow him to provide for his family, and to be able to continue in his art.

Mozart’s faith

As discussed above, Mozart was raised in a devout Catholic family. This was a faith that he took for his own, embracing it completely. It was the guiding influence throughout his life.

Mozart’s letters frequently reference his attendance of religious services, and give insights into the spiritual practices and beliefs of this great composer. In one letter, he wrote, “I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.” Can it be seriously suggested that such a sentiment is not referring to the hope for heaven?

In another letter, Mozart expressed exasperation at the thought of those who are without faith, atheistic figures associated with the Enlightenment that was sweeping through central and western Europe at the time, writing, “I have always had God before my eyes…. Friends who have no religion cannot long be my friends.”

Mozart wrote to his father at one point, “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…. Thus all will be well, and I must be happy and contented.”

Such a sentiment coming from a man who had faced (and would continue to face) a great deal of hardship is a sure sign of a strong and devoted faith. It was his faith that guided him, his faith that sustained him.

The debate as to the degree of Mozart’s devotion to Catholicism largely hinges around the question of his being a Freemason. It must be remembered that, while Freemasonry and Catholicism are at odds now, in Mozart’s time the relationship was much more ambivalent.

Freemasonry is certainly incompatible with the Catholic faith. In 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated, “Faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”

But in the 18th century, in the earliest days of Freemasonry, an essential contradiction between it and the Faith wasn’t seen. Mozart himself saw no contradiction between his Catholicism and his status as a Freemason. While Freemasonry was perceived by many in the Church as problematic, it is clear that Mozart himself was not acting out in rebellion against his faith. There is abundant evidence to the fact that he lived his faith most seriously until his dying day.

Mozart’s music

What makes Mozart’s music so profound, so moving, so sublime, is hard to put into words. And that is one of its chief qualities: its ineffability. It can’t be nailed down, it can’t be explained, it can’t really be defined.

It has always been a curiosity to me that the rules of “Common Practice” in musical composition and musical theory are essentially derived from the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his numerous chorales. These are generally accepted as the standard by which all other musical compositions will be assessed. Why is this? I would suggest that this is primarily because of the coherence and essential understandability of J.S. Bach’s compositions, and how they correspond so directly with the physics of music as discerned by the ancient Greeks. Also, being a teacher himself, Bach produced much music designed to instruct in musical form and composition.

But I say again, the reason Bach—and not Mozart—is the guidepost for how we look back on all that came after is that there is that certain something about Mozart’s music that cannot be pinned down. In a word: it is miraculous.

I don’t mean to diminish the work of Bach in the slightest way. Bach was so much more than a machine producing endless chord progressions—his Mass in B Minor, and his St. John and St. Matthew Passions, and countless other works, display a hitherto un-encountered genius of musical composition and spiritual expression through music. But Mozart…there is something more.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger remarked in 1996, “His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

Of Mozart’s sacred music, there are several pieces that are of particular importance, or especially exquisite beauty, to which I would bring the reader’s attention briefly.

Mass in C Minor (K. 427/417a)

Written in 1782-1783 in Vienna, the piece was actually unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death. Large parts of the Credo and the Agnus Dei were not completed. While the piece, like many Mass settings of the time, is impractical for liturgical use because of its grandeur and scale, it continues to be used in a liturgical context. Pope Francis called the “Et incarnatus est” aria from the Credo “matchless; it lifts you to God!”

Requiem in D Minor (K. 626)

Composed in 1791, the piece was famously left unfinished when Mozart died, although the circumstances of the piece’s commissioning, composition, and eventual completion are shrouded in mystery, and highly debated (and is a gripping story for another time).

A quintessentially Mozart piece—although most of it was finished by others after Mozart’s death, possibly with notes and sketches and explanations he had given—the splendor with which God and His mercy are approached and depicted in the piece is profound.

Perhaps the best example is in the “Confutatis” movement. Fiery, incendiary strings chug along underneath, while the winds and voices intone a text about being consigned to flames of woe, when suddenly the strings break into pleasant, sweet, major arpeggios, while sopranos and altos float high above, gently (sotto voce) imploring God to call us along with the blessed saints. The expressiveness and personal conviction with which Mozart always wrote his sacred music is evident here.

Ave Verum Corpus (K. 618)

Written in 1791, this piece is a setting of a 14th-century Eucharistic hymn (“Hail, True Body”) written for the feast of Corpus Christi. This is a piece that in many ways defies description. A departure from much of the grand writing with which Mozart is identified, this tender, reserved motet makes one feel the faith Mozart had in the Blessed Sacrament and Christ’s Real Presence.

There is no better way to summarize the faith and music of this giant figure than in his own words, expressed in yet another letter: “But if someone has been introduced from earliest childhood, as I have been, into the mystical sanctuary of our religion; if there, when you did not yet know how to cope with your dark but urgent feelings, you waited for worship with an utterly fervent heart, without really knowing what you wanted, and went away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what you had; if you thought how lucky were those who received the Eucharist, and at the communion the music spoke in quiet joy from the hearts of those kneeling there, Benedictus qui venit, then it is all quite different. Once you really take in again words which you have heard a thousand times, in order to set them to music, it all comes back. It stands before you, and moves your soul.”

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About Paul Senz 113 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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