Mozart Requiem KV 626
Mozart Mentors Orchestra
Sarah Tuttle, soprano
Joëlle Morris, contralto
David Myers, Jr., tenor
John David Adams, bass
Monday, May 30, 2016, 5:00 PM
Camden Opera House
29 Elm Street, Camden
“I have made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst. As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the past few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting—young as I am—I may not live to see another day.” Mozart wrote these words in a letter to his father in 1787 when he was 31 years of age, only four years before his own premature death.
In July 1791, a mysterious stranger dressed in gray visited Mozart. The stranger commissioned Mozart to write a requiem for an anonymous patron. The fee was generous: half would be paid in advance and the rest upon completion of the work. An unusual condition was that Mozart keep the commission and the bizarre terms a secret.
After Mozart’s death in the same year, rumors and myths quickly circulated about the Requiem. The myths were perpetuated by some of Mozart’s imaginative biographers even to recent times and inspired such works as Peter Shaffer’s stage play and subsequent film Amadeus.
The central myth had it that Mozart believed the commission for a requiem to be an omen of his impending death, and that the mysterious stranger was the Messenger of Death. Terrified by the Messenger on several occasions, Mozart supposedly died of anxiety and melancholy. Shaffer’s play carries the myth even further by identifying the stranger as composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival.
The true circumstances of the commission, writing and completion of the Requiem are no less interesting. In reality, the stranger in gray was a steward of a Viennese aristocrat, Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, an amateur musician who frequently hired professional musicians to perform in his home. The Count liked to commission works secretly, copy the parts in his own handwriting, and then ask the players to guess who the composer really was. If they wished to be paid well, they would guess that it was the Count’s work. In the case of the Mozart Requiem, the Count intended to perform the work in memory of his wife, who had died in February of the same year (1791).
It is a well-established fact that Mozart needed money and it appears evident that he accepted the commission as nothing more than a business deal. His letters written during the summer and early fall of 1791 show no anxiety about death but are full of his usual banter and gossip. It was only late in the fall of that year that he began to consider the Requiem as his own valediction. A letter written to a friend states: “I know from what I suffer that the hour has come. I am at the point of death. I have come to the end without having had the enjoyment of my talent. Life was so beautiful, my career began under such fortunate auspices. But no one can change his destiny. No one can measure his days. One must resign oneself, it will be as Providence wills. I must close. His is my death song. I must not leave it incomplete.”
Mozart’s inability to complete the work was undoubtedly due to his other musical obligations. He had two operas in production at the time: La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute. When he finally got around to working on the Requiem commission he was already in failing health and it became increasingly clear that he would not be able to complete it.
After Mozart died, his widow Constanze was faced with a dilemma. She was in serious debt. In order to honor the terms of the commission and collect the other half of the fee (and retain the original advance) she had to deliver the completed score. But Mozart had only finished the complete vocal parts and continuo from the Introit to the Offertory. The Lacrymosa breaks off after eight measures. Constanze turned to several of Mozart’s colleagues hoping they might complete the piece but they were unable to do so. Finally, she succeeded in persuading Mozart’s 25-year-old pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr to complete the Requiem. Süssmayr had been in regular contact with Mozart while he was working on the Requiem and his handwriting resembled Mozart’s, but he was not an experienced composer of church music.
Apparently, Count Walsegg was satisfied that the Requiem was good enough for his own devious purposes because he performed it as his own composition in December, 1793. However, Constanze secretly violated the terms of the commission and had the score copied before delivering it to the Count. If she had not done this, the work might never have survived at all. In fact, unbeknownst to the Count, the entire Requiem had been performed in January, 1793 in a benefit concert for Constanze and her children.
One of Mozart’s contemporaries wrote shortly after his death that Mozart “…finished entire pieces of music in his head and kept them there until he had cause to write them down, or until he had reasons of his own to release them. He was then able to write them down very quickly.” This statement has added greatly to the controversy over how much of the rest of the Requiem was Mozart’s conception. Researchers have identified at least four composers who had some hand in the completion of the work. Franz Jacob Frystädtler probably completed the colla parte instrumentation of the Kyrie (a basically mechanical process of assigning vocal lines to the instruments). Süssmayr added the trumpet and timpani parts. Joseph Eybler seems to have written the instrumental parts for the Sequence before giving up, and there is evidence that Maximillian Stadtler wrote some parts of the Offertory. But the bulk of the completion was done by Süssmayr as he acknowledged in a letter written in 1800 to the original publishers of the Requiem, Breitkopf & Härtel. In the letter he states that he was asked to complete the work because he had often played and sung through the music with Mozart during the final weeks of his life. He also added that Mozart had frequently discussed the “detailed working of the composition and explained the how and wherefores of the instrumentation.” He goes on to say that the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were entirely his own composition and “in order to give the work greater uniformity” he had taken the liberty of repeating the music of the Introit and Kyrie for the Communion.
Mozart scholars have been critical of Süssmayr’s work, and there have been several attempts to provide a more Mozartean completion of the Requiem. The most recent “completion” is the work of Professor Robert D. Levin of Harvard University, which has attracted considerable interest. Levin writes, “The key question about Süssmayr’s version is whether any of the portions of the Requiem that are not in Mozart’s hand were based on his ideas. Although Süssmayr claimed to have composed these alone, they display the tight motivic construction of Mozart’s fragment, in which a small number of themes recurs from movement to movement. (Süssmayr’s own music lacks such motivic interrelationships.) Perhaps, then, the ‘few scraps of music’ Constanze Mozart remembers giving to Süssmayr together with Mozart’s manuscript contained material not found in Mozart’s draft. Mozart also may have suggested certain ideas to Süssmayr from the piano.
“A clear evaluation of the movements Süssmayr claimed to have composed is clouded by mistakable discrepancies within them between idiomatically Mozartean lines and grammatical and structural flaws that are utterly foreign to Mozart’s idiom. First attacked in 1825, these include glaring errors of voice leading in the orchestral accompaniment of the Sanctus and the awkward, truncated Hosannah fugue. Furthermore, Süssmayr brings back this fugue after the Benedictus in B flat Major rather than the original D Major—in conflict with all church music of the time.” [Robert D. Levin, copyright 1995, reprinted in February 14, 2004 program notes at Harvard University.]
The unusual instrumentation of the Requiem is unquestionably Mozart’s own conception because he indicated the instruments in the autograph of the Introit. He avoids the usual horns, flutes and oboes and substitutes lower-voiced basset horns for clarinets. (In our performance we use clarinets because basset horns are rare nowadays.) He also frequently writes string parts in lower registers so that the resulting sound is dark and somber.
The text of the Requiem Mass (Mass for the Dead) was first formulated in the tenth century. The name “Requiem” is taken from the first word of the Introit, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,” (Give them eternal rest, O Lord.) The oldest existing Requiem is by Johannes Okeghem from the end of the 15th century. From the 16th century on, settings of the Requiem were written increasingly frequently. Composers of more recent periods have also set this remarkable text to music, including Scarlatti, Cherubini, Berlioz, Liszt, Dvorák, Verdi, Fauré and Duruflé. But few of these settings have come as close to what Professor Levin calls the “breathtaking tableau” of Mozart’s final work.