Mozart’s Requiem: An Exploration of a Masterpiece
Sunday, July 30, 3:00 pm ~ Peterborough Town House
Reception to follow.
Harvard Summer Chorus
Andrew Clark, Director
Michael Ostrzyga, Guest Conductor
Winnie Nieh, soprano
Caitlin Felsman, mezzo-soprano
Patrick Waters, tenor
Sumner Thompson, baritone
This season, the Harvard Summer Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem like you’ve never heard it before. Upon his death in 1791, Mozart had only completed fragments and outlines of his work, and Franz Süßmayr composed the rest of the “Mozart” Requiem the following year. The Summer Chorus will journey through the mystery surrounding the work, opening the concert by performing only the fragments of the Requiem that Mozart himself composed, followed by a world première entitled “tegruseR,” composed by guest conductor and artist-in-residence Michael Ostrzyga. The concert will conclude with the first performance of a new completion of the Requiem written by Ostrzyga, who will also conduct our performances. Maestro Ostrzyga is the Music Director at the University of Cologne where he conducts the Symphony Orchestra, Choir, and Chamber Choir, and he has gained an international reputation as a composer of choral music, having been commissioned by performers and festivals around the globe. The chorus is once again honored to be joined by the renowned Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
A Most Sublime Torso: Unraveling the Threads of the Mozart Requiem
Vincent P. de Luise MD
Assistant Professor, Yale University School of Medicine
Fellow, Harvard Advanced Leadership Institute
Music and Medicine Initiative, Weill Cornell Medical College
Of the many compositions birthed from the genius that was Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (1756-1791), none has engendered more lasting fascination and such a profound degree of wistfulness than his last and most powerful work, the unfinished Requiem Mass. The reasons for the Requiem’s commission, the tragic and premature end of Mozart’s life while he was in the process of writing it, and the strange and unlikely trajectory subsequently taken by this haunting and wondrous piece of music are still being debated today, over two hundred years after its conception. The chronology and musicology of this work in the musical firmament, from its most brilliant star, is itself a remarkable narrative.
By the summer of 1791, Mozart had been appointed assistant Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Church and had scored varied successes with the three da Ponte operatic collaborations (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi' fan tutte). He was also about to be commissioned by Emanuel Schikaneder - a friend and fellow Mason - to compose Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a German-language fairy tale and masonic allegory.
Sometime in July, 1791, Mozart received a mysterious visitor - the so-called “grey messenger” - who asked him to write a Requiem Mass. In the Catholic tradition, the Mass for the dead is a series of prayers asking for peace and rest on behalf of the departed. As all Masses were sung, having a new musical setting of the Requiem Mass commissioned for a deceased person was not unusual. Mozart was handed 30 ducats, half the total commission, with the balance to be given him upon its completion. In the era of patronage, a strange proviso from the messenger was that Mozart was never to know or inquire about the individual who commissioned the work.
In our modern times, Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman saw the potential to take this incredible story and conjure both a play (1979) and ultimately the eight Academy-award winning film (1984), Amadeus. In their highly-fictionalized version, Antonio Salieri was the “grey messenger” (here, however, Salieri wears a black, Janus-faced Venetian carnival mask). The moral of both play and film was the cosmic irony that Mozart - the musical genius with the scatological sense of humor, absolute pitch, and eidetic memory - could effortlessly toss off masterpieces, while Salieri - a devoutly religious man but more of a journeyman court composer - could only produce mediocrity, even in sacred works. Despite many stretches of the truth employed in both the play and movie, they were both deservedly hailed not only for bringing Mozart’s sublime music to a broader public, but also for demonstrating the creative process of genius. The real account of the commission of the Requiem is more prosaic but still stranger than fiction.
Count Franz Walsegg zu Stuppach (Stuppach is a town 30 miles south of Vienna) was a wealthy gypsum mine owner and a passionate amateur flautist and cellist. His curious pastime was to commission works from professional composers, copy them out, and then pass them off as his own compositions, performing them with his colleagues, family, and friends in twice-weekly chamber recitals on his estate at Schloss Stuppach.
The Requiem commission which Walsegg sought from Mozart through an intermediary was to honor the anniversary of the death of Walsegg’s bride, Anna, who had passed away at the age of twenty from puerperal (postpartum) sepsis in February. The mysterious "grey messenger" who visited Mozart was either Walsegg’s steward Franz Anton Leitgeb or the more likely Johann Sortschan, his lawyer. Mozart sketched a few ideas for the Requiem in August, 1791, but quickly put away the work to concentrate again on Die Zauberflöte. During that time, Mozart was revisited by the messenger, who was checking back on the Requiem's progress.
The details of Mozart’s last days are fraught with inconsistencies. Mozart’s wife Constanze’s testimony and that of her sister Sophie Weber Haibl not only conflict, they were only offered in 1825, thirty-four years after Mozart expired! On the last full day of his life, December 4th, 1791, Mozart was said to be in bed composing the Lacrimosa and rehearsing other sections of the Requiem with family and colleagues. Mozart had been working in the week prior with Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a copyist and composer of modest repute who had previously assisted in other works. According to Constanze, Mozart had given Süssmayr instruction on how to finish the Requiem in the eventuality that Mozart would die before its completion.
Mozart was extremely uncomfortable by this point, his body markedly edematous (bloated), with myalgias that made it painful for anyone even to touch him. Sophie Haibl recalled that Mozart was puffing out his cheeks to imitate the trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum section of the Requiem when he lost consciousness. In consultation with Dr. Gudener von Lobes, Mozart’s physicians - Thomas von Sallaba and Nicholas Closset, two of the most respected in Vienna, - diagnosed him as having “una deposita sulla testa” (literally “a deposit on the head”) from rheumatic fever. They hastened the demise of their patient by recommending venesection (blood-letting), creating in him a hypovolemic state (too little blood), even though he was purportedly already anemic from renal (kidney) disease. At 12:55 AM on December 5, 1791, Mozart died.
At the time of his death, of the fourteen individual sections in the Requiem, Mozart fully completed only the first section: Introitus: Requiem aeternam. He wrote out the vocal parts and supporting bass line for eight subsequent sections - a practice called particella writing - along with episodic inner instrumental motivic material in some of the movements, from the Dies irae to the Hostias. Mozart composed only the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa, and did not put pen to paper for the Sanctus, Benedictus, or Agnus Dei.
On December 10, 1791, Schikaneder and Baron Gottfried von Swieten arranged for a memorial service for Mozart at which the Requiem was played. But if the work was uncompleted upon Mozart’s death, what iteration of the Requiem could this have been? What was performed of Mozart’s work was only the completed first movement (the Introitus: Requiem aeternam) and a patched-up Kyrie Eleison, scored by Süssmayr and Franz Freystädtler by doubling the vocal parts in the orchestra.
Constanze Mozart - in significant debt, needing to raise funds immediately, and knowing that the balance of the commission would be owed her for the completed Requiem - began to seek out a composer who could finish the Requiem score as it then existed in a handwriting style close to Mozart’s. She asked Joseph Eybler - a composer admired by Mozart - to do the completion, but after a few weeks with the autograph he finished only a small portion before returning it to Constanze. She eventually offered the score back to Sussmäyr, who completed it and - mirabile dictu - did so in a handwriting style that was indistinguishable from Mozart’s (at least to Walsegg). With Mozart’s forged signature on the frontispiece, he returned the “finished” Requiem to Constanzesometime in late February, 1792 and it was thereafter delivered to Walsegg.
The deceptions continued. Though Constanze promised the autograph only to Walsegg and did indeed get the balance of the commission, she also had several copies made of it - one of which she sold to the publishers Brietkopf and Härtel - and shrewdly made money on each sale. Walsegg eventually found out, threatened legal recourse, then backed off when he realized he would be outed as a fraud.
Süssmayr was later contacted by Breitkopf and Härtel, who requested his statement on authorship. Süssmayr maintained he finished the orchestrations of the Dies irae to Hostias, and composed the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei completely on his own. The Breitkopf edition of Mozart’s Requiem never mentioned Süssmayr’s contribution.
Constanze claimed that Mozart had written a majority of the composition, and that besides the score, some “Zettelchen” (scraps of paper) from Mozart also existed, such as the one containing the other-worldly Amen Fugue fragment for the end of the Lacrimosa next to a Rex tremendae sketch, (discovered by Wolfgang Plath in 1962 and the only sketch ever found). She said that these composition notes gave Süssmayr the melodic ideas for those last three sections, as well as recommended that Süssmayr repeat the theme of the Kyrie eleison after the Lux aeterna in the Communio (the final movement). This allowed Constanze to maintain that the overall concept of the Requiem - if not every note - was indeed Mozart’s.
The Mozart Requiem has served as an enduring memento through the centuries. It was played at the funerals of Haydn (1809), Beethoven (1827), Napoleon (reburial, 1840), and Chopin (1849), as well the funerals of Constanze Mozart (1842) and both of the Mozarts’ surviving sons (1844, 1858). Looking locally, it was part of President Kennedy’s memorial mass in Boston in 1964. Most poignantly, it was performed by over two hundred orchestras and choruses around the world on the anniversary date of 9/11.
We can never hope to hear the entire Requiem Mass as Mozart fully conceived it. There will never be found a version from Mozart’s hand that has not been amended by another composer, and many questions still swirl concerning the Requiem and the cause of Mozart’s illnesses and death. The Mozart Requiem will always be a torso, a musical composition unfinished by its creator. Each time one experiences the work - even as one is transported by the architecture and sweep of this composition that is gloriously and incontestably Mozartian - it remains the product of more than one mind and one heart. Nonetheless, this transcendent work of art is imbued with such an overwhelming feeling of sacred, uplifting nobility and of hope that it will always remain one of the greatest touchstones of civilization.
Completing the Mozart Requiem
Very few people have actually really heard Mozart’s Requiem. This strange concert experience takes about half an hour. You’ll hear the familiar music of the chorus, soloists, celli, and double basses with the full orchestra only playing in the opening Introitus, after which the instrumentalists will essentially just sit on the stage waiting. Every couple of minutes, mostly when the singers remain silent in the beginning, middle or end of a movement, the first violins will play some bars before the singers start again. You’ll barely hear the other instrumentalists at all. What you will hear feels like a blueprint. Sometimes you don’t even miss something; in a way, it is comparable to viewing an originally fully colored picture in black and white. The blueprint turns into fragments in the Lacrimosa: here the music suddenly cuts off after eight measures. Then, surprisingly, the two next parts of the liturgy are there in the same manner as the movements before. However, the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and the Communio (with Lux aeterna and Cum sanctis tuis) are missing completely.
When you look in a manuscript score containing only Mozart’s own handwriting and nothing else, you’ll see this primary compositional material intact and complete (except when there is really nothing there of course) and surrounded only very sparingly by fragmentary hints every few pages: just two or three bars here and there, almost always in the first violin part, mostly indicating how the introductions and interludes should sound like, with at times an additional counterpoint line.
What is usually known as Mozart’s Requiem is – mostly – the completion by his pupil and assistant Franz Xaver Süßmayr which fills all the gaps mentioned above. Within Süßmayr’s completion you’ll find touches of previous attempts to complete the work by – in chronological order – Franz Jacob Freystädtler (who wrote out the string parts of the Kyrie), Joseph Eybler (who orchestrated everything until the beginning of the Lacrimosa and also wrote a melody for bars 9 and 10 in the Soprano-part of the Lacrimosa,) and Abbé Stadler (who wrote the string parts in Domine Jesu). Süßmayr kept most of this material but not all of it.
This traditional rendering of the Requiem was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1800, performed and received countless times since then. By the first decades of the 19th century it had become very popular – understood as a piece completely by Mozart’s hand.
Doubts came up as the “Requiem-Streit” was initiated in 1825 by Gottfried Weber who questioned the authorship in movements that we now know were doubtlessly composed by Mozart. Beethoven understandably held a grudge against Weber, calling him famously an “Erzesel” (“arch-donkey”) and “doppelter Esel” (“double-donkey”) in notes he made in an article by Weber right beside a paragraph which questioned the authorship of the Kyrie.
Much has been researched and written regarding the Requiem since then, in particular the question of authorship. But the aura of mystery continues to encircle the Requiem, as the trend of romanticizing its genesis was soon supplanted by a detached scientific approach uncovering fact from legend, possibly excluding much of what appears to be likely but unprovable. Many questions have been answered, reasonable explanations and possibilities have been offered, and still many problems will most likely never be solved.
It is true that Mozart did not know the identity of the person commissioning the Requiem, Count Franz von Walsegg, who often anonymously commissioned works by famous composers, copied them in his handwriting, and premiered them as his own creation. We do not know if Mozart was aware of the fatality of his sickness. Why didn’t Mozart complete the movements as they came along, stopping in the Lacrimosa to finished the later movements? Why did Constanze Mozart not approach Süßmayr first, especially if it is true that Mozart had been assisted by Süßmayr when working on the Requiem? Did Süßmayr work from first-hand instructions given by Mozart himself? Did Süßmayr have more sketches unknown to us as Constanze claimed to have given him? If so, what did they look like? The more you delve into the work, the more inconsistencies surface, with some hypotheses and conclusions excluding others.
In my completion I attempted firstly to fully understand Mozart’s compositional habits - his style and preferences concerning all musical parameters, his grammar, his sense of dimension and proportion, his ideas of musical space vertically (form and time) and horizontally (how he cares for placing a part strategically within a certain range).
I carefully observed all of Mozart compositions - most especially his liturgical works - to understand his habits with certain words and expressions. I also studied works with similar orchestrations to the Requiem, including Ch'io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene. KV 505 was written in 1786 and is one of the few vocal works featuring a similar woodwind combination (two clarinets and two bassoons). I also examined Mozart’s adapation of Handel’s Messiah (1741), since Mozart modelled some of his music in the Requiem after Handel: The Kyrie melody is modeled from the chorus ”And with his stripes” in Messiah as well as Handel’s Dettingen Anthem HWV 265 (1743), and the opening chorus of Handel’s Funeral-Anthem HWV 264 of 1737 serves as a model for the Introitus. Mozart must have known a vast amount of music and - much like Bach - absorbed his musical surroundings, transforming these influences through his own sensibilities.
We can trace many other influences and parodies that Mozart incorporated into his Requiem, including an a cappella setting of Libera Me by Joseph Haydn - also found in Requiems by Heinrich Biber, Johann Joseph Fux, Florian Gassmann, Johann Michael Haydn, and Francois-Joseph Gossec - which features a canonic passage similar to the vocal parts in Mozart’s Recordare. Composers constantly distilled compositional material and ideas through various musical eras and styles.
In my completion, I sought to discover if Mozart’s music finds its way into Süßmayr’s Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio movements. If Süßmayr’s writing is indeed informed by Mozart, how might the obvious inconsistencies of Süßmayr’s writing with Mozart’s grammar be explained? When I settled on a reasonable explanation, I kept as much of the Süßmayr completion as possible. I composed new music with the intent of emulating Mozart’s style and conventions. I added a new “Amen” fugue to the end of the Lacrimosabased on a sketch by Mozart that strongly suggests that he would have intended to have a conclude with a fugue at that moment.
I tried to developed solutions consistent with Mozart’s previous compositions while also examining other completions of the work, all of which present fascinating solutions. I kept returning to Mozart’s fragments, reflecting on why certain bars are written down there, and – sometimes even more importantly – why there is nothing written out in other spots where Süßmayr or Eybler composed striking material. It is impossible for anyone to complete a work in a manner that gives justice to the genius of Mozart. I simply hope that Mozart would like what I have added to his fragment in forming a complete work to perform for you this evening.
Notes provided by the Harvard Summer Chorus.