A Requiem as the Vienna Master’s Legacy

Kyrie eleison. ©Charles Thibo

At some point it had to happen. At some point I had to write about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, KV 626. Too many times I had listened to the overwhelming opening chant “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Lord, give them eternal peace). Too many times I had been swept away emotionally by the prospect of the eternal light shining upon me (“Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine”). Yesterday I heard it in an arrangement by Franz Xaver Süßmayr, performed by the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herreweghe in Luxembourg. Oh Lord, what a blessing! What a performance! Simply exhilarating!

Süßmayr was a student of Antonio Salieri and according to Mozart’s wife Constanze, also a student of Mozart himself. He completed the Requiem after Mozart’s death. But Constanze is not necessarily a reliable source, as she made quite a number of contradictory statements after her husband’s death about the composer and the Requiem. Unfortunately she is at the origin of many myths surrounding Mozart’s life and works.

She had a reason: Mozart died a poor man, heavily indebted, and Constanze had to fear that the creditors would line up at here door and claim their money. She set out to build a legend around Mozart and the Requiem, promoting his genius. She desperately needed to find somebody to finish the piece in order to sell it as soon as possible. Mozart had completed the instrumentation of only nine full pages of the score, the rest of the piece had to be written based on Mozart sketches of the main voices and his more detailed indications about the bass.

Constanze passed the material to three composers before it finally ended up in Süßmayr’s hands. First came Franz Jacob Freystädler, Mozart’s most experienced student, who added the instrumentation of the fugue of the “Kyrie”. Joseph Eyler then added the instrumental voices of the sequence from the “Dies Irae” to the “Confutatis, maldeticti”. The next arranger that Constanze picked, the clergyman Maximilian Stadler, did not add anything at all. Süßmayr, Mozart’s assistant, finally did the main work. Beginning with the “Dies Irae”, he wrote a completely new score  – that’s more than two third of the Requiem.

The work had been commissioned anonymously, Mozart never knew that Count Franz Walsegg was behind it. Mozart had asked 50 ducats, half of it as a down payment. Contrary to the agreement with the count, Constanze had the score copied and sold one copy to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II for 100 ducats, a second to the Elector of Saxonia for 200 Friedrich d’or. She also sold the score to two different editors, Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig and J. A. Andrée in Offenbach. Was it desperation or ruthlessness that made Constanze behave in such a scandalous way with respect to a work a nobleman had commissioned to remember his dead wife?

When you listen to this sublime and deeply moving music, you would never suspect any of the wheeling and dealing behind it. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo… Two things stand out: First Mozart choice of D minor as the main key of the work. It can be interpreted as a hint at the Doric key of ancient church music and a metaphor for death and sorrow as this key denotes similar themes in his operas “Don Giovanni” and “The Magic Flute”. Second, the instrumentation. Mozart uses two basset horns tuned in F instead of the oboes one would have expected. He liked those dark tones – in the “Magic Flute” he used a bass clarinet – to express the horror of death and man’s awe before his evanescence.

At the same time Mozart used thematic material that was already known to the audience, one may even say popular. The above mentioned Maximilian Stadler noted that Mozart borrowed from Händel’s oratorium “Messiah” and the “Anthem for the Funeral of Queen Caroline”. He also used a transposed theme of Händel’s “Dettinger Te Deum”. The fusion of the Baroque heritage with an avant-garde instrumentation, the infusion of operatic lightness in an earnest piece of music, the relentless stimulation of the audience’s emotions – all this shows Mozart’s genius.

The Requiem, in an revised edition of 1971, has been recorded by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Thomanerchor Leipzig.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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