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Grabmusik, K42/35a

composer
1767; original version
author of text

 
On 9 June 1763, the seven-year-old Mozart and his family set off from their home in Salzburg and embarked on a Grand Tour that was to last for three and a half years. The impact of this formative trip, which included six months in Paris, fifteen months in London and shorter stays in many of northern Europe’s other leading musical centres, can scarcely be over-estimated, and by the time he arrived home on 29 November 1766, less than two months before his eleventh birthday, Mozart already had a remarkable portfolio of compositions to his name. It must have been hard for local musicians and dignitaries to fathom the full extent of the young boy’s fame and success, and in a report that he submitted to London’s Royal Society in 1769 Mr Daines Barrington, an English lawyer who had met Mozart in London and subjected him to an extensive series of musical tests, reported the following anecdote:

The prince of Saltzbourg, not crediting that such masterly compositions were really those of a child, shut him up for a week, during which he was not permitted to see any one, and was left only with music paper, and the words of an oratorio.
During this short time he composed a very capital oratorio, which was most highly approved of upon being performed.

Musicologists believe that the short cantata Grabmusik was the result of this challenge, and although there is no definitive documentary proof for this assumption, it is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable works of Mozart’s prodigious childhood.

The performance during Holy Week of a scenic oratorio before an image or relief of the tomb of Christ is a convention of medieval origin that survives in parts of southern Germany to this day. Grabmusik, which can be translated as ‘Cantata on Christ’s Grave’ (literally ‘Grave Music’), is thought to have been first performed in Salzburg Cathedral during Holy Week 1767. The anonymous text takes the form of a dialogue between a tormented soul, who is desperately lamenting the tragedy of Christ’s death, and an angel. When the work was revived in the mid-1770s, Mozart added a final recitative and chorus, but this recording preserves the original’s taut intensity by ending with the conciliatory duet between the Soul and the Angel.

The Soul’s opening aria is a piece of staggering turbulence and force, and Mozart probably never wrote anything more challenging and virtuosic for the bass voice. Repeated staccato high F sharps, cascading triplets and jagged octave leaps combine to evoke a frenzied exhortation to Nature to break itself asunder in the wake of Christ’s death, and the orchestra already makes a pivotal contribution to the dramatic soundscape; the short middle section even manages to heighten the tension still further, shifting from D major to D minor and diving headlong into harmonies of startling adventurousness.

This visceral outburst is answered astutely and sympathetically by the Angel, firstly in a short recitative and then in a tender G minor aria full of compassion and warmth. Particularly effective, and affecting, is the way the music suddenly breaks off mid-phrase before melting into the final adagio, in which the Angel urges the Soul to calm his fury and dissolve into penitence.

This is followed by a second recitative for the Soul, this time accompanied by the full string section to suggest the slow dawning of comfort and hope in his mind, and this in turn leads into the redemptive final duet, in which the Soul is gradually drawn into the Angel’s consoling, healing and ultimately uplifting power. With this remarkable yet curiously little-known work, the young Mozart already shows himself to be capable of transforming a drily didactic religious text into a work of considerable emotional and dramatic scope, and if this was indeed the piece composed in response to Archbishop Schrattenbach’s test, it was surely a test that Mozart passed with flying colours.

from notes by Ian Page © 2018

Recordings

Mozart: Grabmusik & Bastien und Bastienne
Studio Master: SIGCD547Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

No 1. Recitative: Wo bin ich? bittrer Schmerz! (Die Seele)
Track 1 on SIGCD547 [1'02] Download only
No 2. Aria: Felsen, spaltet euren Rachen (Die Seele)
Track 2 on SIGCD547 [6'02] Download only
No 3. Recitative: Geliebte Seel’, was redest du? (Der Engel)
Track 3 on SIGCD547 [1'04] Download only
No 4. Aria: Betracht dies Herz und frage mich
Track 4 on SIGCD547 [4'06] Download only
No 5. Accompanied recitative: O Himmel! was ein traurig Licht (Die Seele)
Track 5 on SIGCD547 [1'16] Download only
No 6. Duet: Jesu, was hab’ ich getan? (Der Engel/Die Seele)
Track 6 on SIGCD547 [4'44] Download only

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