Mozart wrote a total of 17 church sonatas, which, compared to his famous works such as the „Magic Flute“ or „A Little Night Music,“ have been somewhat neglected by music history up to now. Yet it is precisely the sacred works that bear witness to the genius of the musician and composer.
It is somewhat tragic that Mozart’s church sonatas (sonata da chiesa) are rarely brought to light, but there are probably several reasons for this.
First of all, what are they anyway? They are short one-movement orchestral pieces (with organ continuo) composed for the Catholic Mass, and were intended to be played between the Epistle reading and the Gospel. Nowadays they would rather be performed at the offertory.
But here the problems already begin: „only“ music (without chant/text) has always been disreputable and highly suspect among the clergy; it could lead to sin, even if it is Mozart. This attitude has been common since the Greeks (Aristotle), and was happily adopted by Christians, and is still true today.
From my conducting perspective, I can say this: the main reason to import an orchestra for a church is to perform beautiful masses liturgically with the choir and soloists. Now, if you already have all the troops together, it doesn’t make sense to perform something ‚only‘ with the orchestra, even if it is only a short piece. Then it is better to add one of his motets, such as ‚Exultate, jubilate‘ for soprano and orchestra. Soloists are expensive, you don’t let them sit around unused. And the church choir would also feel underutilized.
From the organist’s perspective it also makes little sense, because the organ itself has only a continuo function, i.e. it only accompanies the orchestra and is hardly heard, and one could also omit the organ (with the exception of 3 of the 17 church sonatas, where the organ has a small solo part). Unfortunately, this also has the consequence that even on a concert evening, where perhaps all Handel’s organ-and-orchestra works are performed, these works would not be played either, because they do not use the organ as a solo instrument.
What reasons are left then? Very few for a live performance. But of course we have the good fortune of recordings, and there it is very worthwhile. Because the music is wonderful, and recordings are also your own medium, which can give us the gift of otherwise unheard Mozart music.
About Frank Uwe Liefländer
Following studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music / Toronto, the Göttingen native held an assistant professorship in church music at St. Paul University Ottawa. After 35 years working abroad, conductor and church musician Frank Uwe Liefländer returned to his former home in 2018. Liefländer now serves as a full-time church musician in the Diocese of Augsburg.