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Mozart in his finery. The portrait is by Johann Nepomuk della Croce and probably dates from the time Mozart was in his early twenties.

Composition of the Requiem

Mystery and intrigue have shrouded Mozart’s Requiem since the composer’s death on December 5, 1791. There is the puzzle of the “Grey Messenger” who delivered the commission to Mozart, the anonymity of the commissioner, the promise of a significant payment, the contractual agreement that the work become the exclusive property of the commissioner and that the composer remain unknown, and the stirrings of superstition roused within Mozart at the request to write a mass for the dead.

About fifty miles southwest of Vienna, in Stuppach, the beautiful Countess Anna von Walsegg had died on February 14. She was twenty-one. Her grieving husband, Count Franz von Walsegg, commissioned two works to commemorate her: a marble-and-granite monument from the renowned sculptor Johann Martin Fischer, and a musical setting of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead from Mozart. For the monument, von Walsegg paid 3,000 florins, and for the Requiem, 225 florins. Some two hundred years later, the monument no longer exists, but the Requiem setting remains a cornerstone of Western classical music.

What we now know is that von Walsegg wanted the work written anonymously to satisfy a curious predilection of his own. Himself an amateur musician, he had commissioned works from several composers under the same conditions as the Requiem. He would then copy these in his own hand and pass them off as his own compositions at private performances.

Mozart received the commission during the summer of 1791. It was as much as he might be paid for an entire opera, and he received a down payment of half at the outset. Mozart accepted the commission eagerly, and not just for the financial reward. In his Salzburg days, he had written a prodigious amount of sacred music; in Vienna, he had written almost none. He had been preoccupied with the Viennese taste for opera and with concerti for his own public performances. But also, he had been discouraged for some time by the strictures imposed on the composition of sacred music by the ruling emperor. Now, under the more liberal Joseph II, the strictures had been lifted.

Mozart had recently accepted the unpaid position of assistant Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s, in the hope that the elderly and ailing Kapellmeister would soon be indisposed and that he, Mozart, would then gain a secure and paid position. So when the commission for the Requiem came, he saw it as an opportunity, under the new freedoms allowed sacred music, and unfettered by any strictures 

of expressivity, to prove himself a composer worthy of the office at the most important cathedral in Vienna.

Mozart was busy completing The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito when he accepted the requiem commission. It is thought that he began to sketch ideas for the Requiem during the summer, but he soon left for Prague to launch Il Clemenza. Franz Xavier Süssmayr, Mozart’s young student and assistant, accompanied him to help meet deadlines by working on score realizations and production of orchestral parts.

Mozart turned his full attention to the Requiem commission on his return to Vienna in early November. But very soon, he fell ill. At times he became fretful that fate was at work against him. He is said to have feared he was writing his own requiem.

 

Constanze, his wife, took the score away from him on occasion so he might have some relief from his despair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Constanze. Portrait by Josef Lange 1782.

On his sickbed, and though he grew increasingly ill, Mozart worked steadily on the Requiem for some weeks. On December 4, friends gathered around his bedside to sing parts of the Requiem for him. It is said he turned his face to the wall and wept. The last notes he wrote were the first eight measures of the Lacrymosa movement. He remained lucid until just a few hours before his death in the early hours of December 5, 1791. Constanze, beside herself with despair, was in the next room. Her sister Sophie was with Mozart when he died; she reported that in his last hours he was mouthing parts of the Requiem.

A funeral service was held on December 10 at St. Michael’s Church. Two movements of the Requiem were performed: the completed "Introitus: Requiem" and the "Kyrie." It seems that Süssmayr finished the colle parte (orchestral parts doubling vocal parts) scoring of the "Kyrie" in time for the funeral service.

 

The completion of the full Requiem is another story. Within days of Mozart’s death, Constanze approached several young composers to finish the work, and finally Süssmayr completed the piece. Several movements combine Mozart’s thematic and harmonic material with Süssmayr’s orchestrations; some are Süssmayr’s own. Had it not been for Constanze’s actions, the Requiem might have been lost forever.

Süssmayr died twelve years after Mozart, ever silent about his illicit completion of the work. The score in von Walsegg’s library lay unrecognized after Mozart’s death, and the count, if true to his colors, might well have tried to claim the Requiem as his own. But Constanze made the musical world a great gift: she had two copies made before sending the score to von Walsegg, and it is one of these that was sent to the publishing house of Breitkopf & Härtel, who published it in 

1800. It was Constanze’s prescience that granted Mozart’s Requiem immortality.

In the Requiem, more than in any other work, Mozart’s life and his music coalesce. The coincidence of Mozart’s own illness and imminent death with the commission of a mass for the dead offers much fertile interconnection and makes the Requiem his most deeply personal statement. 

There are today several completions of the Requiem; Süssmayr’s completion remains a concert standard and that is the completion we have chosen to perform. We sing Italianate pronunciation of the Latin text, which, given Mozart's early association with church music in Italy, seems appropriate.

Structure and Content

The Requiem’s overall structure is symmetrical. It is comprised of fifteen movements, some of which segue from one to the next. The first and second movements are repeated, with differing text, as the fourteenth and fifteenth. The overall form of the piece is an arc, with the seventh movement, the Lacrymosa (“Tearful”), as the central point of the work, structurally, and also at the 

emotional heart of the piece.

 

The first eight measures of the "Lacrymosa" are the last notes Mozart ever wrote. Several sections of movements are repeated, "Quam Olim Abrahae" and "Osanna," giving the listener architectural anchorage. The mood of the movements ranges from the tragedy of the "Lacrymosa" to the terror of the "Dies Irae" to the awesome majesty of the "Rex tremendae."

There are three movements for the quartet of soloists, interpolated between the choral movements: "Tuba Mirum," "Recordare," and "Benedictus." All the other twelve movements are for choir and orchestra, with a small section for soloists in the "Domine Jesu."

The signature key of the Requiem is D minor, the key of tragedy. The piece opens and closes in this key, and seven of its movements are all in D minor. The other eight movements are split equally between minors other than D minor and major keys: G minor is used three times, A minor once. The major keys are B flat (twice), F, and D.

Several movements are cast as fugues, a style considered old-fashioned in Mozart’s day. In fugal writing, one voice enters, followed by a second with the same subject or a counter-subject, followed by another and another. There is a wonderful joke that Stravinsky is said to have told about fugues, that references their dense texture, that can be demanding of the listener: as a new voice enters, the previous voices leave, and the audience does the same!

 

But Mozart’s genius allows him to choose this fusty, old-fashioned form for his most effervescent music: the "Kyrie" at the beginning and its echo, the "Cum sanctis," at the end; the clashing struggles of the damned in the "Confutatis;"  "Quam olim Abrahae," where the fugal layers suggest multiple generations; the two "Osanna"s, bubbling with exuberant, overlapping cries of praise; and part of the "Domine Jesu: ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum," (let hell not swallow them—the souls of all the faithful departed—and let them not fall into darkness.)

The music of Mozart's Requiem is Classical in its crafting, yet Romantic in expression. Its movement structures are clear and elegant; and looks back to the counterpoint and even melodic material of the Baroque giants, Bach and Handel. At the same time, it looks forward to the era of the more heart-on-sleeve expression of the Romantic composers. Beethoven called Mozart's Requiem “wild and terrible.” 

Majestic and intimate, universal and personal, powerful and tender, poignant and passionate, the Requiem conveys pathos and hope, fear and faith, and an awesome wonder at and closeness to the Almighty.

The last portrait of Mozart, painted by Josef Lange.

We see Mozart without his wig, in profile rather than looking at the painter and viewer.

His gaze is introspective.

Lange has captured Mozart in a personal and poignant moment.

Mozart Requiem

Notes © Shulamit Hoffmann 2024 

Mozart Requiem

Church of St. Simon and Juda, Prague, March 15 2011

Mozart performed on the organ in this very church!

Viva la Musica and Prague Choir & Orchestra

Deirdre Lobo-D'Cunha, Soprano

Wendy Morgan Hunter, mezzo-soprano
Brian Thorsett, tenor

Jordan Eldredge, baritone

Freddie Mendoza, tenor trombone

Shulamit Hoffmann, conductor

Shulamit with René Ochoa. 

We are in Prague in front of our concert poster. 

Viva performed Dr. Ochoa's Misa del Pueblo 

on the same program as Mozart Requiem.

Requiem Texts and Translations and notes on the movements

by Drs Amy Jervis and Shulamit Hoffmann

(Use the scroll bar on the right to view the whole text)

Mozart played this organ in the loft of the Church of St Simon and Juda, Prague

Double manual, three and half octaves

Viva violinist Be'eri Moalem channeling Mozart

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