The Stiftskirche is the church of St Peter’s Benedictine Abbey in Salzburg’s Altstadt. The abbey was founded in the 7th century by St Rupert. The Stiftskirche itself dates from the Romanesque period, but it was extensively rebuilt in the 17th and 18th century. I happened into it on the afternoon of Good Friday and, leaving, I noticed that the music on Easter Sunday’s 10.15 mass would include Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. That would be interesting, I thought, if we could get ourselves there at that hour.
So Sunday morning we cycled 20 minutes along the bike path that runs beside the Salzach into the city centre and found our way through the maze of streets and platzes to the old church. We got off to a late start, so the priest was just finishing his sermon when we crept from the porch into the back of the nave. Others were entering as well, including a middle-aged couple just in front of us carrying a small basket covered with a cloth embroidered ‘JHS’ – Christ’s initials.
We breathed in thick incense as we stood in the crowd at the back, awed by the Baroque magnificence of the church. Its long barrel vault is white, ornamented closely with pale green rococo filigree plasterwork. Along its length, the vault is supported by an arched colonnade, above which hang enormous paintings. Where the vault joins the colonnade, there are lunette windows, through which light on this sunny morning poured.
Along the colonnaded nave stand monumental marble altarpieces, heavy with paintings and massive silver candlesticks. Above them are brightly painted and heavily gilded life-sized statures. Over the chancel rises a large dome; this morning, light from its cupola flooded the altar below. Flowers were massed on the altar, and statues and vessels on it glinted gold. A row of priests and altar servers in red or black vestments covered by white lace surplices stood as the priest lead the mass in musically intoned German, singing in the old style of the Latin mass.
Overwhelmed by sound, light, colour, smell, we took a while to find our bearings, but gradually we moved along the side aisle to midway the length of the church. Then, from the organ loft over the back of the nave, Mozart’s Mass resumed, with orchestra and chorus, the soprano’s voice rising clear and pure, more piercing than the light pouring through the cupola, as piercing, one wants to believe, as Constanze’s soprano when the work was first performed, in 1783, with Mozart conducting in this very church.
We stood through the rest of the mass, transfixed by the music, by colour and image, light and shadow, the melodic intonation of the mass itself. Gradually we moved from the side aisle to a position behind a bank of pew where we could see the altar more clearly. Periodically, Mozart’s music soared, punctuating the mass. I was half lost in a trance, succumbing to the ecstasy one feels sure the artistry and excess of ornamentation, gold, silver, light and scent were meant to inspire.
I felt this all without an scintilla of belief, even, at times, with a kind of simmering antipathy, given the complete collapse of moral authority the church is undergoing from the pope down. Yet the experience of the mass in this context has its own fascination, especially as a unifier of community, however briefly, as during the sign of peace, which I’ve always found moving.
The mass at last ended. At the end, the priest lifted his hands and, against the background of gold, blessed the food which people had brought in their baskets, an Easter tradition here. Then the organ began a sumptuous voluntary and the bell in the Romanesque tower began to toll. Leaving, we walked beside a father who looked down at his small daughter skipping beside him, swinging a basket with the Easter food. Amid the crowd we made our way out of the church and stood in the platz in front of it watching as Salzburgers poured out, many wearing traditional elements of dress – Bavarian jackets, lederhosen, wool hats and capes.
With the bells continuing to toll overhead, the notes deep and rich, we wandered around the side and to the back of St Peter’s to explore the St Petersfriedhof cemetery, the oldest in Salzburg, with its wrought-iron painted grave markers and freshly planted bright yellow flowers. Through I’m sure there are graves more ancient, the oldest marker I’ve spotted is dated 1717. A few metres away was a grave so new the ribbons on the burial wreaths were still fresh.
From from the cemetery, we passed through two more platzes before coming to the platz in front of the enormous Italianate cathedral, the Dom. St Peter’s bells were still ringing from a couple of hundred metres away. Then, just a few minutes later, mass ended in the Dom, and people streamed out of that building as its bells, more sonorous and elaborate, began to toll. All told, as we stood and wandered and watched, the bells from the two churches must have rung virtually continuously for a half hour, deep, loud, tremendous bell tolling, the sound vibrating right through me, as if the atoms of my body merged with the vibrating air around me.
And so we explored and absorbed the sounds and sights of Easter in Salzburg until it was time to find our bicycles in the maze of streets before cycling along side the Salzach, its waters pale blue-green, on a fresh spring morning, gradually leaving the city behind us.