By Thomas May, program annotator for the Berkeley Symphony
Born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg; died on December 5, 1791, in Vienna. Mozart began composing the Requiem in 1791, the last year of his short life, and died before he could complete it.
First performance: part of the Requiem was performed as a memorial for Mozart on December 10, 1791, while a performance of the posthumously completed score was arranged for his widow Constanze on January 2, 1791. The Requiem is scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings with organ continuo. Duration ca: 48 minutes.
The state of incompletion is one of the most haunting aspects of Mozart’s Requiem. Over the past two centuries, countless scholars and Mozart aficionados have pondered the extent to which the Requiem as we know it represents the composer’s own musical thoughts. A correspondingly wide variety of theories has been vented, but the genesis of the work is more or less as follows. In the summer of 1791, in between work on his two last operas, Mozart was approached by an emissary of the Austrian Count Franz WalseggStuppach and offered a generous fee to compose a Requiem, which the dilettantish Count intended to pass off as his own work. The offer came during a time of financial troubles for Mozart, and he readily accepted the commission from the stranger, who declined to disclose his or the Count’s identity.
The circumstances (mysterious from Mozart’s point of view) have added to the Romantic lure of a work that the composer reportedly began to imagine he was writing for himself as he became more engrossed in it. At one point his wife, Constanze, enforced a moratorium and withheld the score, so concerned had she become by the toll it was taking on her husband.
And of course the topic of Mozart’s successful peer and sometime rival, Antonio Salieri (who would die only two years before his onetime pupil Beethoven, in 1825), has given rise to an entire category of its own within the lore surrounding Mozart’s Last Year. The scenario of Salieri murdering Mozart has made for intriguing theater (and film) but is historically ludicrous. (P.D.Q. Bach’s parody of the idea in A Little Nightmare Music is one of his most hilarious efforts.)
Only the “Introitus” and “Kyrie” were written in full score (linked into a single movement). Along with the strings and basso continuo, the orchestration calls for the darker woodwind timbres of basset horns (a type of clarinet) and bassoons (no flutes to sweeten the sound) and a solemn brass component of trumpets and trombones, punctuated by timpani. For the other movements Mozart managed to sketch out only the vocal parts and continuo line of the “Dies irae” sequence (suggesting its instrumentation here and there) up to the “Lacrymosa,” where the manuscript breaks off after eight bars, and of the Offertory ( “Domine Jesu” and “Hostias”). The traditional and most frequently encountered version of the Requiem—as in the present performance—is the one completed shortly after Mozart’s death by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, at the request of Constanze.
The longstanding consensus used to be that Süssmayr orchestrated all of the “Dies irae” and Offertory and then composed the rest of the “Lacrymosa” and all of the “Sanctus,” “Benedictus,” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Agnus Dei,” though he recycled Mozart’s “Introitus” and “Kyrie” music for the concluding “Lux aeterna” and “Cum sanctis tuis.” (It’s touching to read one of Mozart’s letters from his final summer, in which he teasingly pretends to be Süssmayr.) But how much of those later sections Süssmayr really “composed”—as opposed to implementing musical ideas Mozart had passed on to him—has remained a matter of vigorous debate. Constanze’s claim that Süssmayr merely followed instructions dictated by her husband was long regarded with skepticism. Yet as the music writer Andrew Raeburn reports, the discovery of a cache of sketches in the composer’s own hand in 1962 suggested that this may have more validity than was previously assumed.
In any case, there can be no mistaking Mozart’s authentic voice in the music that frames the Requiem and in the “Dies irae” sequence. These passages represent his most mature style, while at the same time drawing on his earliest memories of the impressive liturgical ceremonies of Catholicism from Salzburg. Part of the mixture also includes the music he had been developing in his recent score for The Magic Flute, which expresses the enlightened ideals of his Masonic humanism. The eminent musicologist Christoph Wolff, author of a detailed study of the Requiem, points out that Mozart would have undertaken a wide-ranging study of models from “the tradition of funeral music.” These extended from a then-famous requiem he had known in his youth by his former Salzburg colleague Michael Haydn (brother of Joseph) to other contemporary works, as well as the remarkable legacy of Bach and Handel Mozart had been rediscovering during his Vienna years.
Indeed, in his recent book Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, Wolff underscores the importance of Mozart’s rediscovery of Baroque contrapuntal polyphony for the Requiem: “Going well beyond an emphasis on any single model, the work essentially represents a folding of Handelian and Bachian ideas and principles into Mozart’s very own language of music. This concept penetrates every page of the Requiem . . .” Overall, Wolff eloquently concludes, the Requiem “creates the awareness of both artistic consummation and irretrievable loss, a loss clearly extending beyond the Requiem fragment as such and casting a light on the much larger fragment of an abbreviated creative life.”
The Requiem contains some of Mozart’s darkest music. To give resonance to the solemnity and terror of Death, he instinctively draws on his operatic sensibility, using as his central tonality the key of D minor—the key with which he had conjured the sounds of Don Giovanni’s fateful reckoning. The Requiem stages a drama of contrasts between darkness and light, inescapable despair and lyrical consolation, threat and hope: a drama whose tone is announced immediately by the solemn and relentless processional that opens the work: the fact of death itself in music. Rays suggesting possible redemption intermittently shine through, perhaps most movingly in the “Recordare,” with its plea to be remembered. Significantly, Mozart scores this passage for the solo quartet of singers. In his sublime setting, the plea is not only for the departed but for those left grieving.