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A Foretaste of Heaven: Musical Teleology in Mozart's Ave verum corpus, k618

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 February 2024

Lauri Suurpää*
Department of Composition and Music Theory, Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland


In June 1791, having composed almost no church music for ten years, Mozart wrote the short motet Ave verum corpus, k618, a setting of the Latin medieval eucharist hymn. The theological teleology in the text introduces a process-like aiming at a goal that cannot, however, be reached. This study is about how teleology operates in the motet – the ways in which the text's ultimately unfulfilled goal-directed processes operate in Mozart's music. The music is approached from a variety of analytical perspectives that reflect different aspects of this theme: the new Formenlehre and phrase structure, topic theory, and the analysis of voice-leading structure, register and hypermetre. Together, these approaches elucidate the multiplicity of musical processes that, as in the motet's text, announce a goal but fail to reach it.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 I present the text and the music as they appear in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, series 1, volume 3; see ‘Ave verum corpus’, in Geistliche Gesangswerke: Kleinere Kirchenwerke, ed. Hellmut Federhofer (Kässel: Bärenreiter, 1963), 261–262. The punctuation of the text is different in Mozart's manuscript.

2 I discuss the theological aspects of the text only to the extent that is necessary for analysing the musico-poetic relationships in Ave verum corpus.

3 Vašíček, Zdeněk, ‘Philosophy of History’, in A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, ed. Tucker, Aviezer (Chichester: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011), 34 (my italics)Google Scholar.

4 The association of heaven with height is visible in the medieval thinking that underlies the text of Ave verum corpus, such as in the numerous paintings of the Last Judgment with the saved souls positioned in the upper parts. Likewise, in Dante's Divina Commedia, which reflects ancient ideas of cosmology, Paradise can be reached by climbing the mountain of Purgatory.

5 For Heinrich Schenker's discussion of obligatory register see Free Composition, trans. and ed. Ernst Oster (New York: Longman, 1979), 107–108.

6 I use the term ‘phrase’ as defined by William Rothstein: ‘a phrase should be understood as . . . a directed motion in time from one tonal entity to another . . . If there is no tonal motion, there is no phrase’. Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music (New York: Schirmer, 1989), 5 (original italics). In other words, a phrase ends only when a cadential arrival occurs. The two codettas excluded, there are four cadences in Ave verum corpus; consequently, there are four phrases.

7 For a definition of these phrase-structural types see Caplin, William, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

8 Koch, Heinrich Christoph, Introductory Essay on Composition, trans. Baker, Nancy Kovaleff (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 95Google Scholar. Danuta Mirka lists all the cadential options that Koch gives for a two-reprise form consisting of four phrases, the seventh of which shows the punctuation schema appearing in Ave verum corpus; see Hypermetric Manipulations in Haydn and Mozart: Chamber Music for Strings, 1787–1791 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 114. Koch's terminology with regard to harmonic resting-points is close to, but not identical with, the modern cadential terminology that I use. L. Poundie Burstein conducts a perceptive and thorough discussion of the similarities and differences between Koch's ideas on phrases and harmonic resting-points on the one hand, and the views presented in the new Formenlehre on the other; see Journeys through Galant Expositions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

9 See Beach, David and McClelland, Ryan, Analysis of 18th- and 19th-Century Musical Works in the Classical Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2012), 151153CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Hunter, Mary, The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) 305307CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 In Hunter's binary aria form, the thematic material comprises ‘A B: (x) B’, the tonal return bringing back the contrasting thematic material heard in the aria's first part in the secondary key. In contrast, in her ‘sonata-like’ aria forms the tonal return brings back the opening thematic material.

12 Webster, James, ‘The Analysis of Mozart's Arias’, in Mozart Studies, ed. Eisen, Cliff (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 114122Google Scholar.

13 On a smaller scale, Mozart often used binary form, particularly in themes that begin sets of variations – the themes of the last movements of the Clarinet Quintet, k581, or the Piano Concerto k491 are only two of numerous examples. However, such themes in Caplin's taxonomy are in a small binary form, which cannot underlie complete movements; see Caplin, Classical Form, 87–93.

14 For a discussion of the concept of ‘hybrid 3’ see Caplin, Classical Form, 61; for a discussion of the concept of ‘elongated upbeat’ see Rothstein, Phrase Rhythm, 56–57.

15 For a discussion of the ‘Lully’ schema see John A. Rice, ‘Adding to the Galant Schematicon: The Lully’ (26 July 2022).

16 Keith Chapin, ‘Learned Style and Learned Styles’, in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, ed. Danuta Mirka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 309.

17 Even if a V–I progression were heard in bars 13–14, it would not, as an ending of the presentation phase (basic idea + basic idea), constitute a proper functional cadence. In William Caplin's terminology, there would be cadential content but no cadential function; see ‘The Classical Cadence: Conceptions and Misconceptions’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 57/1 (2004), 81–85.

18 Levy, Janet M., ‘Texture as a Sign in Classic and Early Romantic Music’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 35/3 (1982), 507CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 For a discussion of the Le–Sol–Fi–Sol schema see Vasili Byros, ‘Topics and Harmonic Schemata: A Case from Beethoven’, in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, ed. Mirka, 381–414.

20 Although unusual, this is not the only instance in Mozart's oeuvre in which the rhythmic displacement of a suspension leads to a situation where the primary structural harmony does not appear in the music. For another example, see bars 33–34 in the Larghetto from the Clarinet Quintet, k581, in which the music moves away from the bass pitch D before the suspension of the second violin is resolved; therefore the structurally primary D major triad does not occur in bar 34.

21 In addition, Mozart's rhythm in bar 28 () is unusual. In the strict style, which is quite closely adhered to in Ave verum corpus, quavers preceding the resolution of a dissonant suspension should occur on the weak beat of a bar (most commonly on the second beat, the resolution then appearing on the third beat). This is noted, for example, by Peter Schubert in the case of modal counterpoint and by Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter in their tonal application of strict counterpoint; see Schubert, Modal Counterpoint, Renaissance Style, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88–89, and Salzer and Schachter, Counterpoint in Composition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 103. Yet in bar 28 of Ave verum corpus the quavers occur on the strong third beat. As a result, from the perspective of figuration, the F♮ and D on the fourth beat suggest a resolution, whereas from the perspective of metre, it is the pitches appearing on the third beat that do so. However, as F♮ and D are parts of a dissonant formation on both the third and the fourth beats, the dissonant suspensions at the beginning of the measure are not, strictly speaking, resolved at all. This enhances the expressive intensity of bar 28.

22 Byros, ‘Topics and Harmonic Schemata’, 383.

23 Although operatic and instrumental music were the main domains of the ombra topic in the eighteenth century, it also appeared in liturgical works; for further discussion and representative examples see McClelland, Clive, Ombra: Supernatural Music in the Eighteenth Century (Lanham: Lexington, 2012), 174202Google Scholar.

24 For a discussion of the gradatio figure see Bartel, Dietrich, Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 220224Google Scholar.

25 For a contrapuntal description see Fux, Johann Joseph, The Study of Counterpoint from Johann Joseph Fux's ‘Gradus ad Parnassum’, trans. Mann, Alfred (New York: Norton, 1971), 5556Google Scholar; for a harmonic description see Kirnberger, Johann Philipp, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, trans. Beach, David and Thym, Jurgen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 91Google Scholar.

26 Frank Samarotto, ‘Strange Dimensions: Regularity and Irregularity in Deep Levels of Rhythmic Reduction’, in Schenker Studies 2, ed. Carl Schachter and Hedi Siegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 222–238. Harald Krebs uses the term ‘displacement dissonance’ for this phenomenon; see Fantasy Pieces: Metrical Dissonance in the Music of Robert Schumann (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 33–36.

27 Danuta Mirka shows that fourteen bars extend the limit of phrase length accepted by eighteenth-century theorists; see Hypermetrical Manipulations, 111–112. However, she also indicates (231–244) that twisting expected caesuras, a procedure occurring in the fourth phrase of Ave verum corpus, may lead to quite extended phrases in late eighteenth-century music.

28 The rhetorical figure passus duriusculus was so named in the late seventeenth century by Christoph Bernhard, who noted that it ‘occurs when a voice rises or falls a minor semitone’; The Treatises of Christoph Bernhard, trans. Walter Hilse, in The Music Forum, volume 3, ed. William J. Mitchell and Felix Salzer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 103–104. The passus duriusculus is often associated with the lamento schema when chromatically descending from the tonic to the dominant in the bass. Nathan John Martin discusses the interconnections between passus duriusculus and the lamento, showing several instances in Mozart's church music, in ‘Of Polyps and Plenitude’, Music Theory and Analysis 6/1 (2019), 160–169. However, the passus duriusculus only indirectly refers to the lamento schema in Ave verum corpus because the descending fourth in the bass does not constitute a tonic–dominant progression.

29 Bernd Edelmann, ‘Dichtung und Komposition in Mozarts “Ave verum corpus” KV 618’, in Mozart Studien, volume 2, ed. Manfred Hermann Schmid (Tutzing: Schneider, 1993), 11–55.

30 Jen-yen Chen, ‘Catholic Sacred Music in Austria’, in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Music, ed. Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 99.

31 Augustus Frederic Christopher Kollmann, An Essay on Practical Musical Composition (London: author, 1799), 102 (original italics).

32 Kollmann, Essay on Practical Musical Composition, 100 (original italics). The evidently incomplete word ‘votion’ suggests two possible corrections: a musical one referring to musical ‘motion’ and a religious one suggesting ‘devotion’.

33 Daniel Little, ‘Philosophy of History’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, section 2.2 (27 June 2022).

34 Mozart, A Life in Letters, ed. Cliff Eisen, trans. Stewart Spencer (London: Penguin, 2006), 527 (original italics).

35 Paul Nettl, Mozart and Masonry (New York: Dorset, 1987), 4.

36 Novalis, Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 24. Stoljar's translation of Pollen follows the original manuscript, not the publication; No. 11 was not among the fragments that were published in Friedrich Schlegel's edition that appeared in the journal Athenaeum in 1798.

37 Friedrich Schlegel, ‘Lucinde’ and the Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 48–49. Schlegel's novel Lucinde: Bekenntnisse eines Ungeschickten was published in 1799 (Berlin: Heinrich Frolich).