Mozart Church Sonatas

A little-known legacy of Mozart’s time at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg is a set of 17 gorgeous single-movement church sonatas. Written usually for modest string resources and a small organ (Salzburg Cathedral had five small organs to choose from – along with one big one!), the organ is sometimes used for continuo only, in eight sonatas it has an obbligato part.  

There is some debate as to the exact place of these church sonatas in Salzburg Cathedral’s liturgy. Because Mozart once referred to them in a letter as ‘epistle sonatas’ some have assumed they preceded the epistle reading. One source even claimed they were played during the New Testament reading! (Have a listen to one to rule that out – no one would be paying the slightest attention to the reader!) However, when in 1783 Archbishop Colloredo abolished purely instrumental music in the liturgy in favour of choral music (after Mozart’s time), Michael Haydn responded by composing 114 ‘graduals’, a form which traditionally comes between the epistle and the gospel readings. It therefore seems most likely that the church sonatas preceded the gospel in the Salzburg mass. 

In our Easter Sunday service, which will feature Mozart’s Missa Brevis in C (‘Sparrow Mass’ K. 220), the orchestra will be playing the Church Sonata in C major K. 263 – the only one to include trumpets and timpani – in the place of the communion motet. 

The photo shows Salzburg Cathedral’s ‘organ crossing’ with four small organs (none of which date from Mozart’s time). 

Sources:  Robert S. Tangeman, 1946, Mozart’s seventeen epistle sonatas, The Musical Quarterly, 32(4); Thomas Harmon, 1970, The performance of Mozart’s church sonatas, Music & Letters, 50(1). 

Photo: Cherubino, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons 

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