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Mozart’s Penitent David and Today’s Lack of Sorrow for Sin

If he lived today, would Mozart have composed a cantata like Davide penitente (The Penitent David), K. 469?

Performed successfully for the first time on March 13, 1785 in Vienna’s Burgtheater, it was soon forgotten. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was asked by the Vienna Musicians’ Society (Wiener Tonkünstler-Societät), a pension fund founded in 1771 to support the widows and the orphans of its deceased members, in which other famous musicians also joined, “to prepare some new choruses and, if need be, to add to these arias with recitatives” (in W. A. Mozart, Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, I/4/3, ed. Monika Holl, Kassel, 1987, p. XI).

Reusing material from the never completed Mass in C minor, K. 427, but adding two newly composed arias, one for tenor (No. 6) and one for soprano (No. 8), and a final cadenza of over 40 bars for solo singers (No. 10), Mozart sets some verses of the Psalms to music (119,1a; 33,1; 99,1; 4,2; 67,1; 4,1; 6,1-2; 96,12-13; 7,1; 33,22) in the poetic translation of the Neapolitan writer Saverio Mattei (I libri poetici della Bibbia tradotti dallebraico originale, e adattati al gusto della poesia italiana, vol. 1–5, Napoli 1766–1774). Although never naming David (about 1000–961 B.C.), these refer to his painful family affair: the second king of Israel is called to repentance by the severe words of the prophet Nathan (cfr. 2 Sam 11–12, Psalm 51), who rebuked him for his adultery with Bathsheba and for having had her husband Uriah, his officer then in war, killed. The result is the cantata Davide penitente, K. 469, about 45 minutes of music, with tender and moving melodies and interesting harmonies and counterpoints, written for three solo singers (two sopranos and a tenor); mixed choir; and orchestra (flute, two oboes, clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings).

The two ex novo arias, composed for tenor and soprano I — of which an English translation follows — are the most interesting part of the whole work. “Among so many worries, I looked to You / for pity, oh Lord, / Who sees my beautiful heart, / Who at least knows me. / You have listened to my pleas, / And this soul has rejoiced / because of the silencing by You / of the tempest in my breast,” the tenor sings in a challenging aria, in B-flat major, whose first part is pleading (andante) and the second robust and flourishing (allegro), accompanied by solo flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, and strings. The soprano I, with flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings, sings an aria in C minor, which begins in a threatening and chromatic way (andante) and continues brilliantly (allegro) with much coloratura (high range and extreme agility) and jumps of wide intervals: “Among dark, hostile shadows / the heavens become calm and brighten for the Righteous One, / Who keeps His peace and calm heart in the tempest. / Beautiful souls, oh! Yes, rejoice, / and there will be nobody who will detract the audacity, / this joy and this peace / Whose author is only God.”

Is the climate of penance here remarkably current? A certain “Catholic theology,” well spread by Catholic mass media, wants to ban words such as penance, contrition, and sin. The concept of penance, that path of conversion to God and to others? Unnecessary. The wise recitation of the Act of Contrition, that grief of having offended God, intending “to avoid the near occasion of sin”? Indicted. The sense of sin? Eclipsed.

An impeachment motion against the Act of Contrition has been moved recently by “a theologian,” persuaded to have “muddied the term and concept of sin a lot” and to have “thought it first of all as a failure, as a violation of a norm, of a commandment and therefore as an offense made against God. All this remained in that terrible prayer which unfortunately is still used, I know, by some catechists, which is the Act of Contrition, ‘because my sins offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.’ It’s a prayer that has nothing Christian because God cannot be offended and then God doesn’t chastise, because Jesus came to reveal to us another kind of God, of Father.”

The word “weakness,” which has “a rather vague existential meaning,” replaces the word “sin,” whose “biblical and theological meaning is clear and confirmed by Tradition,” in the eighth chapter of Amoris Lætitia, the apostolic exhortation on love in the family, which now enjoys a certain notoriety: “Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness” (cfr. S. Fontana, Esortazione o rivoluzione? Tutti i problemi di Amoris lætitia, Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019).

Pius XII wisely warned: “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin” (“Radio Message at the closing of the National Catechetical Congress of the United States in Boston,” October 26, 1946). In fact, speaking of sin — which according to the Scriptures is the profound cause of all evil — is avoided in the name of a different religious vision of the world and of the human being. “If God is eliminated from the world’s horizon, one cannot speak of sin. As when the sun is hidden, shadows disappear. Shadows only appear if the sun is out; hence the eclipse of God necessarily entails the eclipse of sin. Therefore the sense of sin — which is something different from the ‘sense of guilt’ as psychology understands it — is acquired by rediscovering the sense of God. This is expressed by the Miserere Psalm, attributed to King David on the occasion of his double sin of adultery and homicide: ‘Against you,’ David says, addressing God, ‘against you only have I sinned’ (Ps 51[50]:6)” (Benedict XVI, Angelus of 13 March 2011).

Those saddened by all confusion and ambiguity might be consoled by all notes of Mozart’s Davide penitente.

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