Jiali Lu on Mozart

by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Requiem in D minor, K. 626

Mozart is one of the most well-known and beloved classical composers of all time, and his Requiem Mass is no exception to this popularity. (A Requiem Mass is a piece of music of which the words have been taken from the Catholic Requiem Mass, or the Mass for the Dead, which is often celebrated in the context of a funeral.) Mozart advanced the classical era greatly over the course of his lifetime, pushing the boundaries of contrapuntal motion and emotional reach. And so, with such popularity, it comes as no surprise that the Requiem has acquired its fair share of myths and legends.

The unusual origin stories of Mozart’s Requiem go back beyond Alexander Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri (1830), in which Mozart is poisoned by the jealous composer Salieri. In fact, it is most likely Mozart who is to blame for the origin of such sinister myths. He was a superstitious man, who had once written in a letter, “I think that something is going on behind the scenes, and that doubtless here too I have enemies” (1778). Hence, it is quite probable that Mozart’s paranoia grew when an anonymous patron commissioned a Requiem, around July of 1791.

That summer, Mozart had been ill. He was nearing his death, and experienced mood-swings often. According to his wife Constanze a few years after his death, Mozart declared that “I know I must die… they have ordered a Requiem, it is for myself I am writing this”. Indeed, Mozart was to die in December of the very year he was commissioned to write the Requiem. It is now easy to see how such a coincidence may have attracted so many rumours, and how even Mozart himself may have believed them; Mozart reportedly exclaimed that the commissioner must have given him “aqcua toffana”, a powerful poison, hence explaining the origins of Pushkin’s tale of poison.

In reality, the patron had other, less dramatic reasons to commission a Requiem. He was Franz von Walsegg, an eccentric count who had wanted to memorialise the recent death of his wife, who passed away on Valentine’s Day 1791, aged only 20. Walsegg had a history of commissioning works from several famous composers of the day and playing them in front of friends and his household, unnamed (perhaps in the same way we play “guess the song” today, to varying degrees of success). Walsegg would pass these compositions off as his own as his guests were unable to name any composer.

Mozart had been paid half of the fee up front, the rest to be paid after the delivery of the full composition. However, Mozart was to only complete the Introit fully before his death on the 5th December. Other parts up to the Lacrimosa were mostly written or heavily suggested in Mozart’s manuscript. After Mozart’s death, his widow Constanze was determined to finish the Requiem, and to receive the second half of the payment, worrying that Walsegg would ask for a refund otherwise. And so, the Requiem Mass was completed in secrecy.

Constanze asked several accomplished composers, many of whom had worked with or studied under Mozart, to complete the Requiem. However, nobody was capable of actually finishing the piece, although some contributed to the final composition. It was only when Constanze asked Franz Xaver Süßmayr, did she find success.

Many scholars have pointed out that it would have been impossible for Süßmayr to have ever completed the Requiem perfectly, not only because of the technical intricacies of Mozart’s style, but because of the no-win situation he was left with. Where the work is of high quality (such as the Agnus Dei), it is assumed that Süßmayr must have used notes left behind by Mozart, and where the work is of low quality (such as the final “amen” of the Lacrimosa, where Mozart had clearly indicated a fugue) it is assumed that Süßmayr is to blame completely.

Mozart’s Requiem was completed in 1792 and sent to Count Walsegg. By then, however, Constanze had organised a public benefit performance in which it was performed, unfortunately making Walsegg’s 18th century version of “guess the song” redundant.

1. Requiem Aeternam (Introitus)

The Requiem opens rather succinctly, the violins seeming to sigh heavily with swelling quavers, supporting a sweet but sorrowful lament from the clarinets and bassoons. A shining soprano line floats over the light string semiquavers. Grand moments of forte splendeur alternate with warmer moments of compassion

2. Kyrie (Introitus)

The Kyrie is a powerful and completely Mozartian fugue. The altos, violins and clarinets soon introduce one of the motifs of the movement, which is a fiendish semiquaver run. This motif forms part of the cornerstone of one of the trickiest movements in the Mozart’s Requiem. The movement ends on a D chord with the third removed. As a result, the movement is left undecided on its mood, neither major nor minor, appropriately illustrating the undecided “fate” of the choir.

3.  Dies Irae (Sequentia)

Dies Irae is the most furious point of the entire Requiem, crying out the terrifying vision of the “day of wrath”. The violins play rapid passages of semiquavers, rarely allowed the chance for even a breath. It is in Dies Irae where the orchestra is most focused and the choir is roaring with power, and it is then when each musician truly comes alive.

4. Tuba Mirum (Sequentia)

This solemn, solo movement opens with a serene trombone solo, making the Last Trumpet a voice of consolation and not of threat. With each lyrical soloist comes a new emotional revelation, before all four soloists join at the end in stunning, quasi-angelic harmony.

5. Rex Tremendae (Sequentia)

Even without a latin education, one can tell that this will be a dramatic movement. The full chorus starts by begging for mercy in short and thundering chords, but soon the altos and sopranos sigh for salvation on a dying fall in a change of heart.

6. Recordare (Sequentia)

The Recordare, a vision of paradise in the heart of the Sequentia, consists of breathtakingly expressive melodies. The words honour Jesus’ role as redeemer, and Mozart honours such words with appropriately beautiful, sunlit harmony and delicacy.

7. Confutatis (Sequentia)

Confutatis comes as a great shock, with savage and unstoppable ostinato rhythms in the strings, but there are also tender interjections of the women’s cries of “voca me”. The movement ends in a descending chromatic sequence which ends quite unexpectedly: what one expects to be the final chord is in fact the penultimate. The last chord is in fact an inverted dominant 7th chord, creating tension and anticipation for the next movement.

8. Lacrimosa (Sequentia)

A pulsing heartbeat from the strings opens possibly the most famous and poignant movement of the Requiem. The choir enter quietly, but slowly let a surge of emotion flood the Lacrimosa up to a climax, before dropping down both in pitch and volume. It is said, according to Mr Monks, who cites Mr Bridle (“So it must be true,” as Mr Monks is quoted), that it was after composing the first 8 bars did Mozart die. Perhaps it was the knowledge of his looming death did Mozart compose such grave bars, but in any case the Lacrimosa is a universal symbol of grief.

9. Domine Jesu (Offertorium)

It was this movement we started learning all the way back in September, but it remains as one of the most exciting movements nonetheless. It also contains the feared “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus ne cadant in obscurum” motif, which involves several leaps at a high speed, and though difficult to sing, the dramatic motif is aurally rewarding.

10. Hostias (Offertorium)

The Hostias opens with a flowing and gentle melody in triple time, which illustrates the more hopeful words’ message, whilst simultaneously keeping its passion and spiritual conviction.

11. Sanctus (Offertorium)

Left with only a few sketches from Mozart, Süßmayr composes a majestic movement with long minims and forceful chordal harmonies. Then, the deceptively simple Hosanna fugue enters, which utilises everything from long-held minims to quick quavers. In a powerful yet sustained movement such as the Sanctus, stamina is of the essence.

12.  Benedictus (Offertorium)

The Benedictus consists of short soloist passages before all soloists sing together, creating harmonies that transport you far beyond the Ruddock Hall. Süßmayr claimed to have written this movement and Agnus Dei entirely from scratch, and if so, he masterfully crafts the movement by letting it gradually grow in intensity.

13.  Agnus Dei (Offertorium)

The Agnus Dei starts off low and ominous with a gorgeous and rich semiquaver pattern at the beginning. Possibly, the most beautiful moments occur in this movement. The original theme of the movement returns.

14.  Lux Aeterna (Communio)

The music of the opening returns, now in a magnificent major key. The ethereal opening soprano solo replaces the originally despairing men’s voices from the start of the Requiem, and to the request of Mozart himself, the Kyrie fugue from the start returns to finish the piece. It is an apt finish, bringing his life’s work to an end as it encapsulates the Mozart Requiem: it is technically challenging, musically intense and in dignified splendour.

The cyclical nature of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor could be interpreted to represent the cycle of life and death itself. It is also specifically suited to a concert audience, rather than to God; Mozart uses darker movements not so much as to symbolise hope, but more to illuminate the fear behind death itself. Ironically, it is in the darkest movements, such as Dies Irae, in which the most joy and excitement is found in the choir. Personally, Mozart’s Requiem has shown me intense, emotional sides to people that I did not know existed. It has brought me much joy, and I hope that our performance of the Mozart Requiem may bring joy from darkness to you in the same way.

As Mozart recommended in a letter to his father, Leopold (1787):

”Since death, when we come to consider it, is seen to be the true goal of our life, I have made acquaintance during these last few years with this best and truest friend of mankind, so that his image not only no longer has any terrors for me but suggests, on the contrary, much that is reassuring and consoling.”

Jiali Lu, Upper Fifths