Were these difficulties caused by a tangible lack of personal religious faith in the composers themselves? Was the sort of spiritual application to music for the church, as expressed by the undoubtedly devout J.S. Bach, a generation before, lacking in their music? Was the heavy-handed nature of the Catholic church and the Austrian authorities a dampener on the creative spirit of contemporary musical genius? Or was it simply that the new style itself, the stile galant, which blew away the heavy and sometimes turgid aspects of the Baroque style, replacing them with a new elegance and lightness of phrase, regarded as chic by the eighteenth century bourgeoisie, was not a suitable medium to express weighty and ancient religious texts with centuries of tradition behind them?  A Cappella, or unaccompanied, singing has always suited the church best.  It is, after all, a medium in which the text is bound to take centre stage, free from instrumental distractions.  When written to be played at a fast tempo, classical music is often jocular, racy, busy, crowded, ferocious even. When it is written to be played at a slow tempo the mood is often lugubrious or pensive, and sometimes wistful.  Rosen suggests that these elements of style were, for the authorities, and also for the composers themselves, barriers to the satisfactory expression of the text.  

In his book Rosen also poses the question “Is the function of sacred music expressive or celebrative?”  In other words, and in the case of the Mass, is the music there to illustrate the words, or to glorify the sacrificial concept of the Eucharist? It seems to be a question with which the classical composers themselves struggled.  The opening and closing sections of the Mass, the Kyrie Eleison and the Agnus Dei, are both petitions, both calling for mercy to be shown.  How then should composers set these words?  Should they be quiet, pleading and supplicatory in style? Should they be grand, insistent, dominating and demanding? Or should they be lively, happy, vibrant, optimistic and exciting?  J.S. Bach, in the opening of his mighty B Minor Mass, probably strikes the perfect balance between the grandiose and the supplicatory, with a notable absence of anything too lively or too lugubrious.  This subtlety of expression, outside the theatre and the operatic libretto at least, largely eluded the classical masters when it came to the setting of sacred text, and there are numerous examples (some of which you will hear this evening) of eighteenth-century settings of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei which might be conceived as inappropriately jolly in their character.  E.T.A Hoffman, in his essay Old and New Church Music, written in 1814, states “the church music of Haydn and Mozart is contaminated by excessive sweetness, which banned all seriousness, reverence and dignity.”  (Incidentally, he also said that performances of Viennese masses had no place in the concert hall, drawing a comparison to the reading of a sermon in a theatre.) The roots of Mozart’s sacred word setting can be traced back to his undoubted skill and experience as a composer of Italian and German comic opera.  In his masses we find places where sections with almost absurd and theatrically extended coloratura phrases sit side by side with petitional movements which seem to be filled with a sense of grief and loss rather than of supplication, awe and sacred wonderment. There are Credos where textual passages of the most intrinsic expression of Christian belief and doctrine are illustrated with jaunty scalic and sequential passages, dramatic outbursts, sections of amiable jocular gaiety, and extended, almost symphonic, fugal coda passages to set the Amen. Reinhard Pauly, in his book Music in the Classic Style, accepts the fact that classical church music was generally too happy, but defends it on the grounds that it is an expression of the religious outlook of the time.  The eighteenth-century view was that music and religious art, in the form of painting and architecture, were there to provide a frame – a beautiful setting for the divine ceremony – and the beauty of the house of God, and the art and music which filled it, was to be no more than an artistic outpouring of praise and thankfulness.  

At the risk of generalising, it might be said that the romantic period which was to follow, with its rich harmonic language, its intensity of melody, its grander scale of conception, and its ability to slow down harmonic pulse, would take up and transform some of the heavier and more serious stylistic traits of the Baroque and, in doing so, would provide scope for the musical language of composers such as Brahms, Dvořák, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Elgar and even Verdi to exploit these with considerably greater success than the eighteenth-century Viennese had managed.   

Whatever view you choose to accept, lovers of classical music will find much to enjoy in this evening’s concert.  Present are all the comforting elements of the classical musical language: regular phrase lengths, carefully presented structures, graceful ornamentation, beautifully balanced melodies, the harmonic dependence on the ever-present relationship between tonic and dominant, subtle modulations and well-textured orchestration.  With regards to the effectiveness of the setting of the text as a vehicle for religious worship, it is up to the individual to decide whether or not they find it satisfactory.