Listening to Mozart’s C Minor Mass for the first time

I’m listening for the first time to Mozart’s C Minor Mass because Beth Allen recommended it in her 2007 Swarthmore lecture, Ground and Spring. The cd I’m listening to is by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (Decca, 2008)

It starts with a Kyrie Eleison, sung by a beautiful soprano voice. I feel sleepy, drowsy till – bang- I’m woken up by the chorus. And it’s a mass! I mean, a proper mass. I used to be a Roman Catholic once. I feel a bit dim, not realising that Mozart’s C Minor Mass is actually a mass. It’s a long time since I’ve last been to mass. ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…’.I try to remember how it goes but I can’t. The cd is in Latin. Kyrie Eleison, what does that mean? It’s familiar but I can’t remember…Everything is high octane, the orchestra so full of energy.

I look down and see my foot tapping. More high trills and we’re onto the Agnes Dei. It’s no good. I feel frustrated I can’t remember the opening words of the mass. I take out the booklet and read what’s happening. The words are spread out in four languages, if I need them. Two of them are Latin and English, which is helpful.

Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. Of course, I’m in a mass, a catholic mass. The music is moving and powerful. I feel it flow through me but so much sin! It’s the words I object to. Glory as in ‘Glory be to God on high’ or ‘We give thanks for thy great glory’. Where do these words come from and why do they make me feel different, removed, apart. ‘For thou alone art holy. Thou alone art the Lord. Thou alone art most high’? I’m starting to remember the experience of attending mass. It wasn’t like listening to this music.

And Lynne Dawson is one of the sopranos. I’m pleased I even know her name. She sings on a cd of English songs I bought recently. ‘On this Island’, fabulous stuff.

Still, I’m listening to a Catholic mass, sung in Latin. This doesn’t cause me nearly as much grief as it once would have. In fact, I have been to the occasional christening and service and appreciated them, if that’s the right word. It is a religious experience to share in, even if it doesn’t speak to my condition (is that the right phrase?) any more in the way it once did.

But how stupid am I? A mass, of course, it’s a mass. I thought of my upbringing – church every Sunday. I was spared catechism and benediction. How much worse might it have been? I was taught by priests at secondary school. They were alright. Once, one slapped me for not getting quick enough into line. Another carried a cosh, as a warning. Yet another introduced us to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Bridge over Troubled Water’ and let us think for ourselves. And that experience started me off on a journey which led eventually to Quakers. Here, I hold my earlier experiences with thoughts of becoming ‘Being Godless for God’s Sake’ and holding conversations with trees.

Anyway, stupid, back to the music. It’s a mass. I imagine it blasting out at church. If every mass had music like this, I’d probably be still going. It’s glorious. Oops, there’s that word again. I’m reading the Latin text. Obviously, going to a catholic grammar school, I studied Latin with Classical Studies to O’level. Another benefit, see. I’m trying not to read the English if I can help it but it’s good to know it’s there. My intention was to listen to the music without the words, to see how the music affects me. Does it make any difference reading the words while listening? It helps me make sense of the piece but does it detract from the musical experience? Yes and no. I want to listen more to how how we communicate not only through the written word but by music and movement, by drama and film and art too.

Choral part singing has just come in. It is so breathtaking. The credo rocks! Such glorious music.The soprano is singing now ‘Et incarnatus est…’. And is that an oboe accompaniment? Backed by a bassoon, no, really?

It’s a good story. Whatever you believe, however much you believe, it’s a good story. It’s so relaxing. I try to remember a phrase used by Sandra Cronk in her pamphlet ‘Gospel Order’, about coming to Quakers where she speaks of ‘a place where you can be yourself’, not necessarily a comfortable place to be.

I’m listening to the ‘Sanctus’. Who or what is ‘Hosanna’? I feel I’m searching for my grounding. Where is it? Do I feel too much gilt (pun intended) here, lavished by this sumptuous music?

Wow! This music really rocks your socks off. It knocks your block off.

Mozart is the Springsteen of classical music!


One thought on “Listening to Mozart’s C Minor Mass for the first time

  1. I love this blog Bernie. Mozart’s Requiem is of course brilliant and there is a sort of duality to it; he was Catholic but also a Freemason. Freemasonry at that time was rather critical of the Church and so the Church could be quite vicious if they suspected somebody was a Mason. Maybe Mozart’s is so dynamic because of that conflict within him. Who knows? Least of all me.

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