That Day of Tears and Mourning

Mozart famously received a commission from a secret patron to compose a Requiem in 1791. Mozart had been ill for a year and was laboring under the strain of producing two other major compositions—The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, his return to opera seria—as well as on several other notable works. Surely, composing a Requiem had been too much and was therefore often left on the back burner. Incidentally, the mysterious patron was not Salieri—he was an Austrian nobleman who had recently lost his daughter to illness. This nobleman had a history of commissioning works in secret and then passing them off as his own. In any event, he never got his hands on the Requiem. Mozart died leaving at least a third of it unfinished. Sussmayr, Mozart’s student, completed the work. Other composers have taken shots at re-working the Sussmayr bits, but for all their merit, the Mozart-Sussmayr score remains authoritative.

Here is the bitter end, late into the night of December 4, 1791. Mozart is in bed, feeble from illness and near death. Surrounding him are Sussmayr, several of the singers from The Magic Flute, which was playing to packed houses, and his wife Costanza. The singers worked through the score, with Mozart frantically giving instructions on how to complete the Requiem from his bed. Bits of the notes and scraps that comprised the original score keep turning up, but we will never know what Mozart fully intended here. In fact, even the parts that Mozart unquestionably composed smack of someone cutting corners—more than any work previously, Mozart borrows bits wholesale from other composers, Handel and the Haydn brothers in particular (Michael Haydn’s earlier Requiem greatly influenced the structure and harmonics). You could see Mozart instructing his student to “listen to this bit of X” and rework it accordingly. While it is often said (and indeed I just said above) that the Requiem was 2/3 complete, the fact is that only the first Introit had been fully orchestrated at the time of Mozart’s death. The balance was left in some degree of sketch form. Sussmayr was not nearly as good as Mozart in disguising his influences or otherwise hiding the bits Mozart was borrowing. So what we are left with is something truly fascinating—a clear window into how Mozart composed.

So, let’s dive into the Requiem.  Not surprising, it is one of my favorite works of music, warts and all.  That big brooding sound he developed for Don Giovanni returns in force, right at the start, and barely lets up for the entire piece.  As previously mentioned, Mozart’s hand was solely responsible for the Introit—with a serious assist from Handel.  Mozart takes the source material, lengthens the line, and adds trombones to up the dramatic tension.  And tension is where he leaves us, holding an unresolved dominant triad at the end, leaving the audience waiting for what comes next.  Here is the Introit and two source materials from Handel.  For the Requiem, I am turning to the very famous recording by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.  For my money, it is the best out there.  There are links in the comments to jump to the relevant sections, but I can think of no better way to spend 45 minutes than to crank this all the way up and drown in Mozart’s grief at his impending mortality. 

The first part of the Introit borrows heavily from Handel’s The Ways of Zion Do Mourn, part of his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.  The Kyrie section echoes back to the Messiah, particularly the “And With His Stripes” section.  There are links in the file to take you directly to those parts.

W.A. Mozart, Requiem:

George Frideric Handel, Funeral Anthem, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn: (use the links to skip to the second track)

George Frideric Handel, Messiah: “And with his stripes”

The Kyrie ends with an open fifth, which resolves the tension created at the end of the first part.  This also previews the end of the Requiem itself (also unquestionably composed by Mozart).  This is Mozart at his best. 

As for the rest, we are now firmly in compromised territory, with the master’s hand being supported if not supplanted by his student.  There is much great music left.  The tears of the Lacrymosa are among the most famous bits of the Requiem, as are the Rex Tremendae and Confutatis sections.  To see the difference Mozart makes, contrast the Domine Jesu Christe at the start of the Offertory (pure Mozart invention) with the Sanctus, which is mostly Sussmayr.  The Sanctus is a hot mess, with Sussmayr failing to find a way back to D Major for the second Osanna.  This lack of balance is decidedly un-Mozartian.  Use the links in the above video to jump to the relevant parts.

Mozart died after composing the Lacrimosa—the last words he set to music were “that day of tears and mourning.”  Indeed.

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