Now that you know how to approach the score in your practice, let’s talk about the history and style in order to make your interpretation unique.
Mozart was commissioned to write this piece when he was only 19 years old in February of 1775, for a premiere in March of that same year. During this time, Mozart was appointed the assistant concertmaster for the Archbishop in Salzburg, and wrote many sacred works during this time period. Mozart wrote this piece at the request of the Elector Max III Thomas. The Elector specifically requested Mozart to demonstrate his approach to counterpoint in this piece.
Mozart is said to have written the piece in only a few weeks time before his departure from Salzburg. The fact that it only took only a few weeks to compose it is an amazing feat, even for Mozart, who was constantly busy writing, composing, conducting, and traveling.
Misericordias Domini is a piece that was traditionally used as an offertory in a mass, and is an exercise in contrapuntal techniques. Contrapuntal means a composition technique that uses multiple voices (polyphony) that also had unique in rhythm and shape.
In a response to Mozart’s piece Father Martini wrote in a letter in 1776 to him:
“I find in it all that is required by modern music: good harmony, mature modulations, a moderate pace in the violins, a natural connection of the parts and good taste.”
Because it was written as a sort of “exercise” you can bet that this piece will challenge the singer on a wide range of skills.
The treatment of R’s is an important element of the diction. I recommend flipping all R’s in latin with a flipped (single) R, especially in words like “aeternum” and “misericordias.” I do not recommend rolling the R as it usually affects the vowel and makes it shorter.
Vowels should always be extended to make the most legato vocal line when desired. Try speaking the text out of rhythm to find the longest vowels possible. After that, chant once or twice the section you are working on with the lowest vowels, unless your part indicates to articulate in a more separated way (hint: look for accents and staccati).
Articulation and Instrumentation
Most of the vocal parts in this score are doubled by an instrument (if performed with orchestra), and can be articulated like instruments. Even if your performance is only with piano, I still recommend imitating a string instrument. For example, when your part has sixteenth notes or moving eighth notes, the notes should be approached as if re-articulating with a bow or slightly separated.
Misericordias was scored traditionally for a small basso continuo ensemble consisting of violins, violas, cello, bassoon, bass, and organ. Especially when your part has staccati, accents, and tenuto, these are all areas to choose an instrument and character to imitate with your voice (and write your ideas in your score).
Word Stress and Phrasing
Mozart did a fantastic job of placing stressed syllables on the important part in each phrase. Word stress is another essential part of singing this piece. While you shouldn’t go overboard on how much you are stressing a stressed syllable, the stressed syllables should be slightly louder and the unstressed softer. For example, in “can-TA-bo” and ae-TER-num” should be louder and stressed on the capitalized syllable.
For phrasing, short notes that lead into a longer note should start a little quieter so that you have room to crescendo toward the important parts in the phrase. I recommend tapering the end of most phrases by getting softer as you approach the end of the phrase.
When stated together, the longer phrase “can-TA-bo in ae-TER-num” (when in a longer phrase, ‘TER’ is the primary stress and ‘TA’ is a secondary stress and can have a slight emphasis. In the phrase “mi-se-ri-COR-di-as DO-mini” the primary and secondary stresses are sometimes different depending on the phrase. Mozart will usually put the primary stress on the longer note value, so watch the notation closely.
To sum up, use the history and knowledge of the background of the piece to influence your articulations, crescendos, phrasing, and word stress to bring your interpretation to the next level.