Une page du manuscrit du Requiem de Mozart, 1791
Une page du manuscrit du Requiem de Mozart, 1791  /  Wikimedia Commons

Everything you always wanted to know about... Mozart’s Requiem

Since Mozart's Requiem was unfinished at the time of his death, it went down in history in an aura of legends. But aside from all the myths, its beauty remains. A gravely solemn and transcendent piece… Here's everything you always wanted to know about Mozart's last composition.

1791 is a both exceptional and fateful year for Mozart. In addition to his Masonic Cantata and to the opera seria The Clemency of Titus, he writes two of his major works: The Magic Flute, a wonderful and initiatory opéra bouffe, and his famous Requiem, a work surrounded by legends and left unfinished because of his death when he is only 35, in poverty and sickness.

His own tribute

Here’s what Mozart writes to his father Leopold, four years before writing his Requiem:

“As death [...] is the true goal of our life, I have made myself so thoroughly acquainted with this good and faithful friend of man, that not only has its image no longer anything alarming to me, but rather something most peaceful and consolatory.”

We can find this calm towards death throughout the Requiem, a mass for the dead that swings between terrible accents and soft melodies, both soothing and melancholic. We are in 1791, and Mozart has been seriously ill for over a year. Since he believes he has been poisoned with Aqua Tofana (a very slow poison) and thus sensing his end, he probably decides to write his own Requiem - a tribute by Mozart himself, his last confession.

Alone and against everybody

In 1789, problems are piling up for Mozart. If on one hand, two years earlier, his Don Giovanni has been a triumph, now times have changed in Vienna, and the composer is out of fashion. The times are not in favour of art: following the French Revolution, tensions are escalating in Europe and Austria is preparing for war. Culture is the first to suffer: the number of concerts has diminished by half and Mozart is burdened with debt. In 1790, Joseph II, the emperor of Austria and protector of the composer dies, and the new emperor slowly marginalises Mozart, especially because of his connections with the Freemasons.

Une cérémonie d'initiation dans la loge maçonnique de Mozart, à Vienne, en 1789
Une cérémonie d'initiation dans la loge maçonnique de Mozart, à Vienne, en 1789  /  Tableau d'Ignaz Unterberger

Mozart must also live apart from his mentor and friend, “papa Haydn”. In fact, a theatre director has just offered both composers a very advantageous contract in London. But unlike Haydn, Mozart refuses and stays in Vienna. Does he want to take revenge for all the indignities he has suffered? Does he feel too sick to leave? In any case, Mozart is surely in the darkest period of his life. As Jean Blot, one of his biographers, writes: “approaching the history of his Requiem already means to enter agony.”

The legend

In Amadeus, Miloš Forman shows Salieri - Mozart‘s mortal enemy in the film - offering his assistance to write the Requiem while the dying composer dictates. But this fictionalised version of the composer’s life is not faithful to the actual history of the Requiem. In reality, there is no Machiavellian Salieri who visits Mozart masked, a few weeks earlier, to commission him a Requiem Mass and announce his imminent death.

A picture from the film Amadeus, where Salieri, at the bedside of Mozart, writes the last pages of the Requiem

The person who really commissioned the mass is Count Franz von Walsegg. Count von Walsegg is a fan of trickery, and he commissions works by composers passing them off as his own for his private concerts - but they are no more than copies of already existing pieces. To honour the memory of his young wife and to pretend to be a brilliant composer once again, he anonymously commissions Mozart the piece for a Requiem service. The young composer starts to get weaker and he also must finish other works, but the sum of money promised by the Count pushes him to get to work.

The day before his death, on December 4, 1791, a first performance is presented at Mozart’s bedside with three singers, accompanied by the composer playing the viola. Too ill to continue, he interrupts the performance and asks his former pupil, Süssmayr, to indicate him how to complete his work. At midnight, “the Divine Mozart” dies. He is buried the following day in a mass grave in St. Marx Cemetery, in Vienna, with 16 more bodies.

A piece written by many

It is not quite accurate to say that the Requiem is entirely Mozart’s. On the day of his death, only two parts are (almost) completed: Introitus and Kyrie. The rest remains in draft form, with only the voice and some indications. The famous Lacrimosa, which is so appreciated, is actually incomplete, and it stops after only eight bars. It is said that during the performance that took place the day before he died, Mozart, at the eighth bar of Lacrimosa, burst into tears believing they were the last words he set to music.

Le manuscrit des cinq première mesures du Lacrimosa, de la main de Mozart
Le manuscrit des cinq première mesures du Lacrimosa, de la main de Mozart  /  Wikimedia Commons

After Mozart’s death, his wife Constanze inherits his husband’s letters. She then asks two former students of Mozart to complete the work: Joseph Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayr, in order to collect the final payment. Count Walsegg (who commissioned the work) doesn’t even notice anything and therefore gives Constance the much awaited sum of money.

Süssmayr, Mozart’s student who actually completed the Requiem, is chosen by Constanze because his writing style is very similar to that of her husband. But he does not have his genius. To complete the work, he is largely inspired by some fragments left by Mozart as well as by some early works. For the ending, Süssmayr chooses to use the beginning of the Requiem - maybe he is afraid of betraying his master or to raise him from the dead by completing his mass in his name...

As strong as death

Everything's been worked out so the work resembles death itself: it is pathetic and terrifying, both calm and terrible. Written for four soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass), a choir and a symphonic orchestra, Mozart has excluded all wind instruments (flute and oboe), that are considered too joyful, in order to only keep the basset horn, ancestor of the clarinet, with a more muffled sound. Sad and solemn, the orchestra is perfect for a requiem mass, and Mozart’s writing itself is sober, even austere: there are no sparkly effects nor virtuoso solos.

The spectacular aspect lies elsewhere: the choir is enhanced and it lets its power ring out. In the Dies Irae, the judgment day, a massive storm hits: the terrible voices of the choir show God’s divine wrath coming to man, then some attempts to soften this anger, then again cries of terror… Everything trembles in angst, fever and impatience. Mozart’s last composition achieves a point of sublime excellence.

Paying tribute through music: such a long story

The Requiem Mass is one of the oldest musical genres, whose origins date back to the first millennium, with the spread of Christianity and the birth of Gregorian chants in churches. When Mozart starts writing his Requiem, he is therefore supported by a long tradition. In addition to Gregorian chants, one of his greatest sources of inspiration is Michael Haydn’s Requiem; Michael was the younger brother Joseph, from whom he took the structure.

After a long tradition of Requiems, the D minor tone has become the symbol of the afterlife in music. Mozart’s piece is thus written in D minor, and the same happens with the murdered Commendatore in Don Giovanni, or even with Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 known as Death and the Maiden.

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