“Everything you’ve heard is true”—or so goes the tagline to Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s 1984 motion-picture account of the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the proud, envious Antonio Salieri, who in the film is portrayed as so threatened by Mozart’s genius that he executes a plot to poison the virtuoso. But Shaffer’s account is just fiction. There is no evidence that Salieri instigated Mozart’s demise. A withering Mozart did not dictate any of the Requiem to Salieri from his deathbed. And the surviving plethora of Mozart’s sketches, drafts, and revisions seems to discount the romantic nineteenth-century idea that Mozart engraved flawless manuscripts off the top of his head.
Shaffer’s story was in turn based on an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin, and if the events surrounding Mozart’s Requiem inspire any mythologizing, it may in part be because the actual story of the Requiem’s commission is so mysterious. Around July of 1971, Mozart was visited by an anonymous messenger with a letter offering a sizable advance for a Requiem commissioned by an anonymous patron—the recently bereaved Count Franz von Walsegg, an eccentric musical dilettante.
1791, Mozart’s final year, was a productive one. Mozart wrote a short motet, Ave verum corpus, K. 618, dated June 1791. He accepted the commission for the Requiem as he put finishing touches on his opera The Magic Flute, K. 620, which he would conduct at its premiere the coming September. In August, Mozart went to Prague to oversee the performance of his new opera La clemenza di Tito, K. 621, which he conducted at its premiere—also in September. The Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, had its premiere in October. (“K.” numbers refer to the catalogue of Mozart’s works compiled in approximately chronological order by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, published in 1862.)
Mozart was already ill upon his arrival in Prague. Following his return to Vienna in the middle of September, his health further declined and, suffering from flulike symptoms, he was confined to bed in November. The Czech philosopher and music teacher Franz Niemetschek related in his 1798 biography of Mozart (which remains for scholars a significant source of information) an anecdote from Mozart’s widow, Constanze: “Mozart began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears came to the eyes of the sensitive man. ‘I feel definitely,’ [Mozart] continued, ‘that I will not last much longer; I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.’”
Shortly after midnight on December 5, Mozart died, leaving more than half the Requiem incomplete. The middle portion had only vocal parts and sketches for the orchestral parts; Mozart had written only eight bars of the Lacrimosa, though the Offertory, which follows it, was finished. Constanze was desperate for the whole commission fee and hired one of Mozart’s students, the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to finish writing his teacher’s masterpiece. And it was Süssmayr’s completion—albeit long thought by musicologists to be seriously flawed—which entered the canon.
Süssmayr’s completion divides the seven main portions of the Requiem text into fourteen movements, but Mozart’s treatment of the texts of the Introit (“Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them”) and Sequence are for many listeners the most recognizable portions of the score. The Sequence opens with the thundering chorus of the Dies irae (“The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes as foretold by David and the Sibyl”), which is possibly the most dramatic portion of the Requiem, and culminates with the Lacrimosa (“That day of tears and mourning, when from the ashes shall arise all humanity to be judged”), a desperate prayer of supplication for mercy.
It is unclear how much of Süssmayr’s completion was original and how much was based on Mozart’s sketches or ideas he may have shared with Süssmayr during their work together. Süssmayr claimed as his own the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. He repeated Mozart’s music for the recapitulatory Communion; the music for the Lux aeterna (“Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord…”) and Cum sanctis tuis (“With thy saints forever…”) almost exactly borrowed from the Introit.
Perhaps Mozart was not given to the uncontrollable fits of exuberant laughter depicted in Amadeus, but Mozart—who with the operas Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte proved himself a master of the drama giocoso (literally, “drama with jokes”)—surely had a sense of humor. How ironic he must have found it to spend the last bit of his all-too-brief time on earth composing a Requiem. But how privileged we are to cherish and appreciate this music and the opportunity Mozart affords us—now more than two centuries later—for a glimpse into eternity.
By: Joshua Simka, 2014–2015 Conducting Young Artist
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