Mozart’s Requiem

The Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composed in Vienna in 1791 and left unfinished at the composer’s death. A completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg, who had anonymously commissioned the piece for a requiem Mass to commemorate the February 14 anniversary of his wife’s death.

It is one of the most enigmatic pieces of music ever composed, mostly because of the myths and controversies surrounding it, especially around how much of the piece was completed by Mozart before his death. The autograph manuscript shows the finished and orchestrated introit in Mozart’s hand, as well as detailed drafts of the Kyrie and the sequence Dies Irae as far as the first nine bars of “Lacrimosa”, and the offertory. It cannot be shown to what extent Süssmayr may have depended on now lost “scraps of paper” for the remainder; he later claimed the Sanctus and Agnus as his own. Walsegg probably intended to pass the Requiem off as his own composition, as he is known to have done with other works. This plan was frustrated by a public benefit performance for Mozart’s widow Constanze. A modern contribution to the mythology is Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, in which the mysterious messenger with the commission is the masked Antonio Salieri who intends to claim authorship for himself.

The Requiem is scored for 2 basset horns in F, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets in D, 3 trombones (alto, tenor & bass), timpani (2 drums), violins, viola and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and organ). The vocal forces include soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass soloists and a SATB mixed choir.

History

Composition

At the time of Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791, only the opening movement (Requiem aeternam) was completed in all of the orchestral and vocal parts. The following Kyrie and most of the sequence (from Dies Irae to Confutatis) were complete only in the vocal parts and the continuo (the figured organ bass), though occasionally some of the prominent orchestral parts were briefly indicated, such as the violin part of the Confutatis and the musical bridges in the Recordare. The last movement of the sequence, the Lacrimosa, breaks off after only eight bars and was unfinished. The following two movements of the Offertorium were again partially done; the Domine Jesu Christe in the vocal parts and continuo (up until the fugue, which contains some indications of the violin part) and the Hostias in the vocal parts only.

Constanze Mozart and the Requiem after Mozart’s death

The eccentric count Franz von Walsegg commissioned the Requiem from Mozart anonymously through intermediaries. The count, an amateur chamber musician who routinely commissioned works by composers and passed them off as his own, wanted a Requiem Mass he could claim he composed to memorialize the recent passing of his wife. Mozart received only half of the payment in advance, so upon his death his widow Constanze was keen to have the work completed secretly by someone else, submit it to the count as having been completed by Mozart and collect the final payment. Joseph von Eybler was one of the first composers to be asked to complete the score, and had worked on the movements from the Dies irae up until the Lacrimosa. In addition, a striking similarity between the openings of the Domine Jesu Christe movements in the requiems of the two composers suggests that Eybler at least looked at later sections. Following this work, he felt unable to complete the remainder, and gave the manuscript back to Constanze Mozart.

The task was then given to another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr borrowed some of Eybler’s work in making his completion, and added his own orchestration to the movements from the Kyrie onward, completed the Lacrimosa, and added several new movements which a Requiem would normally comprise: Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. He then added a final section, Lux aeterna by adapting the opening two movements which Mozart had written to the different words which finish the Requiem Mass, which according to both Süssmayr and Mozart’s wife was done according to Mozart’s directions. Whether or not that is true, some people consider it unlikely that Mozart would have repeated the opening two sections if he had survived to finish the work completely.

Other composers may have helped Süssmayr. The Agnus Dei is suspected by some scholars to have been based on instruction or sketches from Mozart because of its similarity to a section from the Gloria of a previous Mass (Sparrow Mass, K. 220) by Mozart, as was first pointed out by Richard Maunder. Others have pointed out that in the beginning of the Agnus Dei the choral bass quotes the main theme from the Introitus. Many of the arguments dealing with this matter, though, center on the perception that if part of the work is high quality, it must have been written by Mozart (or from sketches), and if part of the work contains errors and faults, it must have been all Süssmayr’s doing. A frequent meta-debate is whether or not this is a fair way to judge the authorship of the parts of the work.

Another controversy is the suggestion that Mozart left explicit instructions for the completion of the Requiem on “little scraps of paper.” It is commonly believed this claim was made by Constanze Mozart after it was public knowledge that the Requiem was actually completed by Süssmayr as a way to increase the impression of authenticity.

The completed score, initially by Mozart but largely finished by Süssmayr, was then dispatched to Count Walsegg complete with a counterfeited signature of Mozart and dated 1792. The various complete and incomplete manuscripts eventually turned up in the 19th century, but many of the figures involved did not leave unambiguous statements on record as to how they were involved in the affair. Despite the controversy over how much of the music is actually Mozart’s, the commonly performed Süssmayr version has become widely accepted by the public. This acceptance is quite strong, even when alternate completions provide logical and compelling solutions for the work. A completion dating from 1819 by Sigismund Neukomm has been recorded under the baton of Jean-Claude Malgoire. Salzburg-born Neukomm, a student of Joseph Haydn, provided a concluding Libera me, Domine for a performance of the Requiem on the feast of St Cecilia in Rio de Janeiro at the behest of Nunes Garcia.

The confusion surrounding the circumstances of the Requiem’s composition was created in a large part by Mozart’s wife, Constanze. Constanze had a difficult task in front of her. She had to keep secret the fact that the Requiem was unfinished at Mozart’s death, so she could collect the final payment from the commission. For a period of time, she also needed to keep secret the fact that Süssmayr had anything to do with the composition of the Requiem at all in order to allow Count Walsegg the impression that Mozart wrote the work entirely himself. Once she received the commission, she needed to carefully promote the work as Mozart’s so she could continue to receive revenue from the work’s publication and performance. During this phase of the Requiem’s history, it was still important that the public accept that Mozart wrote the whole piece, as it would fetch larger sums from publishers and the public if it were completely by Mozart.

It is Constanze’s efforts that created the flurry of half-truths and myths almost instantly after Mozart’s death. According to Constanze, Mozart declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, and that he had been poisoned. His symptoms worsened, and he began to complain about the painful swelling of his body and high fever. Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem, and even on the last day of his life, he was explaining to his assistant how he intended to finish the Requiem. Source materials written soon after Mozart’s death contain serious discrepancies which leave a level of subjectivity when assembling the “facts” about Mozart’s composition of the Requiem. For example, at least three of the conflicting sources, both dated within two decades following Mozart’s death, cite Constanze as their primary source of interview information. In 1798, Friedrich Rochlitz, the German biographical author and amateur composer, published a set of Mozart anecdotes which he claimed to have collected during his meeting with Constanze in 1796. The Rochlitz publication makes the following statements:

  • Mozart was unaware of his commissioner’s identity at the time he accepted the project.
  • He was not bound to any date of completion of the work
  • He stated that it would take him around four weeks to complete.
  • He requested, and received, 100 ducats at the time of the first commissioning message.
  • He began the project immediately after receiving the commission.
  • His health was poor from the outset; he fainted multiple times while working
  • He took a break from writing the work to visit the Prater with his wife.
  • He shared with his wife that for certain he was writing this piece for his own funeral.
  • He spoke of “very strange thoughts” regarding the unpredicted appearance and commission of this unknown man.
  • He noted that the departure of Leopold to Prague for the coronation was approaching.

The most highly disputed of these claims is the last one, the chronology of this setting. According to Rochlitz, the messenger arrives quite some time before the departure of Leopold for the coronation, yet we have record of his departure occurring in mid-July 1791. However, Constanze was in Baden during all of June to mid-July, she would not have been present for the commission or the drive they were said to have taken together. Furthermore, The Magic Flute (except for the Overture and March of the Priests) was completed by mid-July. La clemenza di Tito was commissioned by mid-July. There was no time for Mozart to work on the Requiem on the large scale indicated by the Rochlitz publication in the time frame provided.

Also in 1798, Constanze is noted to have given another interview to Franz Xaver Niemetschek, another biographer looking to publish a compendium of Mozart’s life. He published his biography in 1808, containing a number of claims about Mozart’s receipt of the Requiem commission:

  • Mozart received the commission very shortly before the Coronation of Emperor Leopold II, and before he received the commission to go to Prague.
  • He did not accept the messenger’s request immediately; he wrote the commissioner and agreed to the project stating his fee, but urging that he could not predict the time required to complete the work.
  • The same messenger appeared later, paying Mozart the sum requested plus a note promising a bonus at the work’s completion.
  • He started composing the work upon his return from Prague.
  • He fell ill while writing the work
  • He told Constanze “I am only too conscious…my end will not be long in coming: for sure, someone has poisoned me! I cannot rid my mind of this thought.”
  • Constanze thought that the Requiem was overstraining him; she called the doctor and took away the score.
  • On the day of his death he had the score brought to his bed.
  • The messenger took the unfinished Requiem soon after Mozart’s death.
  • Constanze never learned the commissioner’s name.

This account, too, has fallen under scrutiny and criticism for its accuracy. According to letters, Constanze most certainly knew the name of the commissioner by the time this interview was released in 1800. Additionally, the Requiem was not given to the messenger until some time after Mozart’s death. This interview contains the only account of the claim that Constanze took the Requiem away from Wolfgang for a significant duration during his composition of it from Constanze herself. Otherwise, the timeline provided in this account is historically probable. However, the most highly accepted text attributed to Constanze is the interview to her second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. After Nissen’s death in 1826, Constanze released the biography of Wolfgang (1828) that Nissen had compiled, which included this interview. Nissen states:

  • Mozart received the commission shortly before the coronation of Emperor Leopold and before he received the commission to go to Prague.
  • He did not accept the messenger’s request immediately; he wrote the commissioner and agreed to the project stating his fee, but urging that he could not predict the time required to complete the work.
  • The same messenger appeared later, paying Mozart the sum requested plus a note promising a bonus at the work’s completion.
  • He started composing the work upon his return from Prague.

The Nissen publication lacks information following Mozart’s return from Prague

Via Mozart’s Requiem

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