Born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria; died on December 5, 1791, in Vienna, Austria
First performance: On December 10, 1791, a part of the Requiem was performed as a memorial for Mozart; a performance of the posthumously completed score was arranged for his widow Constanze on January 2, 1791.
First Nashville Symphony performance: November 9, 1978, with Robert Shaw conducting at War Memorial Auditorium, with the Nashville Symphony Chorus and featured soloists: Penelope Jensen, Florence Kopleff, John Aler, and Thomas Paul.
The eerily fascinating fact that Mozart died while in the process of composing a setting of the Requiem—music for a religious ceremony intended to honor the memory of those who have passed away—has only further enshrouded this unfinished masterpiece in mystery. The tangle of lore and outright fiction surrounding the Requiem extends to the historically absurd charge that Mozart was murdered by his successful peer and sometime rival, Antonio Salieri, out of jealousy over his talent. (It has, however, inspired an intriguing opera by Rimsky-Korsakov and the famous play and film Amadeus.)
In the summer of 1791, Mozart was approached by a go-between for an unnamed aristocrat who offered a substantial sum of money to Mozart if he would compose a Requiem Mass for his master's late wife. Experiencing serious financial difficulties at the time, Mozart was eager to accept the project from this mysterious stranger, who refused to reveal their or their master’s identity (we know the latter to have been Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach, who intended to pass the work off as his own). At one point, the composer’s wife, Constanze, was said to have become so concerned about the toll the Requiem was taking on Mozart that she insisted he take a break from it.
The full score in Mozart’s hand consists of the Introitus and Kyrie, which he linked as a single movement. His orchestration for these movements is unusual: strings with basso continuo and a darker overall woodwind timbre of basset horns (a type of clarinet) and bassoons—there are no flutes to sweeten the soundscape, no tender oboes; timpani, trumpets, and trombones add their solemn, oracular sonority. For the other movements he was able to sketch, Mozart only managed to write out the vocal parts and continuo line (the bass harmonies) for the Dies irae sequence up to the Lacrymosa—where his manuscript breaks off after eight bars—and for the Offertory (comprising Domine Jesu and Hostias).
Mozart died on December 5, 1791. The Requiem was completed shortly after by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, at Constanze’s request, and it is this version which is most frequently heard today. For a long time it was thought that Süssmayr orchestrated the portions of the Dies irae and Offertory that Mozart had sketched out, subsequently composing the rest of the Lacrymosa and all of the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei himself. For the concluding Lux aeterna and Cum sanctis tuis, Süssmayr recycled Mozart’s music for the opening Introitus and Kyrie, creating a
But there has been much debate over how much of the unfinished sections Süssmayr actually composed independently. Constanze claimed that he was merely following verbal instructions which her husband had dictated on his deathbed. Her assertion was met with skepticism for a long time, but the discovery of a cache of sketches in Mozart’s hand in the 1960s suggested that Constanze’s account of events may have had some truth to it after all.
In the 1990s, the Mozart scholar and pianist Robert Levin prepared the alternative edition of the Requiem that we hear in this performance. Levin’s edition is based on the Süssmayr completion but includes emendations and clarifications of the orchestration to reflect Levin’s deep understanding of Mozartean—an understanding accumulated from a lifetime of performance and study of the composer’s music.
Levin additionally extended the fugue in the “Osanna” section and substituted an entire fugue on the word “Amen” at the end of the Dies irae sequence in lieu of the simple cadence at the end of Süssmayr’s setting of the Lacrymosa. For this, he used material for a fugue from one of the posthumously discovered sketches to compose in the manner of Mozart.
In spite of the convoluted history of the Requiem’s completion, the music is unmistakably in the voice of Mozart—specifically, in his most mature style, while at the same time drawing on his earliest memories of the Catholic liturgical ceremonies with which he had grown up in Salzburg. The moments of terror in the Requiem comprise a sacred music counterpart to the serene assurance of enlightened idealism in his opera The Magic Flute, which Mozart had recently completed.
According to the musicologist Christoph Wolff, Mozart’s study of models from the tradition of funeral music played a crucial role in the Requiem's composition. These models ranged widely, from a requiem by his former Salzburg colleague Michael Haydn that had been famous in Mozart’s early years to contemporary works, as well as the remarkable legacy of Bach and Handel that Mozart had been rediscovering more recently during his Vienna years. His enthusiasm for the complex style of Baroque counterpoint left an obvious mark on the Requiem. Overall, as Wolff puts it, 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.”
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
The Requiem is a powerful exploration of the experience of mortality and grief and contains some of Mozart’s darkest music. He begins in the key of D minor, which clues us in to an operatic sensibility at work here as well: Mozart associated D minor with a passionate intensity of despair and used this key to conjure the terrifying sounds of Don Giovanni’s judgment and descent into Hell.
Throughout, Mozart stages a drama of contrasts between darkness and light, threat and hope, beginning with the solemn, relentless processional that opens the Requiem: the presence of death itself in tone.
The possibility of redemption is allowed intermittently to radiate—perhaps most movingly in the Recordare, with its plea that the deceased be remembered. Significantly, Mozart scores this passage for the solo quartet of singers, enhancing the sense of intimacy. The Requiem, even in its unfinished state, cannot fail to move with its plea for the departed and for those left grieving alike.
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.
− Thomas May is the Nashville Symphony's program annotator.
Featured on Guerrero Conducts Mozart's Requiem — June 1 to 4, 2023.
Nashville Symphony & Chorus
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Tucker Biddlecombe, chorus director
Iwona Sobotka, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
John Tessier, tenor
Kelly Markgraf, bass-baritone
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