Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165

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            Mozart was the master of all contemporary musical genres, but opera was his forte, and of course, none since has exceeded his remarkable achievement in the marriage of music and drama.  It is easy to forget, today, that Italian opera ruled the roost in eighteenth-century European musical life, and so it was natural for young Wolfgang to begin remarkably early composing them.  His father, Leopold, was a consummate stage door father, and was assiduous in promoting the genius of his young son.   The blandishments—and recognition--of Italian musical culture lay just over the Alps from Salzburg, and the early significant trips to Milan and Rome figured prominently in the lives of father and son.  The first trip began in 1769 when Wolfgang was thirteen years of age, was an immense success, and included the première of his first opera seria.  That, in turn, led to a commission for a second opera, and it was thus in Milan for that production (during the third trip there, in 1772) that the young Mozart also composed Exsultate, jubilate.

            The star of the 1772 opera, Lucio Silla, was the accomplished castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, whose vocal prowess was notable, and it was for him that the showpiece, Exsultate, jubilate, was written shortly after Christmas, 1772.  It is a brief cantata, consisting of three sections with an intervening recitative.  Intended to be sung at High Mass on a celebratory feast day, the Latin text celebrates and comments upon the Nativity.   Given this, the work has always been referred as a motet.  It is a quintessential bravura affair, and ample evidence of the capabilities of the male sopranos, the castrati, who took the high parts in contemporary opera seria.  Today, of course, female sopranos sing this repertoire, there being, understandably, no male volunteers. Notwithstanding its liturgical nature, Exsultate, jubilate, like all such contemporary compositions, is in the imposing secular operatic style.   It is Mozart’s first great work that still enjoys frequent performance, and a clear harbinger of the beloved operatic arias still to come in his maturity.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan