Enhanced Program Notes – Mozart Requiem

Musical Legacies

Portrait de Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzbourg, 1756-Vienne, 1791) jouant à Paris avec son père Jean-Georg-Léopold et sa sœur Maria-Anna by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, ca. 1763. Musée Condé

Gregorio Allegri, sketch by James Caldwell

Initiation ceremony in Viennese Masonic Lodge, during reign of Joseph II by Ignaz Unterberger, 1789. Vienna Museum at Karlsplatz

Gottfried van Swieten, engraving by Johann Georg Mansfeld (?), based on a drawing by Lakner. Archive of Beethoven Haus Bonn.

Johann Sebastian Bach, portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), Leipzig, Germany.

Page 1 of Mozart’s autograph score. Austrian National Library, Codex 17561a, folio 1 (recto)

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s life can be seen in three segments:  his youth as child prodigy; the 1770s when he was known as a young composer and performer; and the 1780s when he was a mature composer living in Vienna. When Wolfgang was a young child, his father Leopold recognized his unique talent and arranged for him, and often his sister Anna Maria, to travel and perform throughout Europe.

These tours, no doubt a source of income for the family, also gave the young Mozart invaluable first-hand experience with diverse compositional styles, even as he astonished professional musicians and amateurs alike with his musical abilities and knowledge.

Before the 14-year-old Mozart transcribed Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a multi-voiced chant setting (falso bordone) elaborated with embellishments, during Holy Week in 1770, the piece had ignited musical imaginations and sparked speculation.

Allegri became a member of the papal choir in 1629, becoming the maestro di cappella (master of the chapel) at mid-century. Allegri’s contemporaries viewed him as a musical heir to Giovanni Palestrina and the stately control of harmony embodied in the Miserere underlies the various versions that have been published throughout the years. Sung during Holy Week until the papal chapel was disbanded in 1870, Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51 was composed for two choirs singing in alternation with each other, interspersed with chant. Improvised elaborations in the choral parts were common in this type of Psalm setting and the use of embellishments was carefully protected by the papal chapel, a fact Leopold Mozart makes clear when he writes to his wife in April 1770 that Wolfgang has written down the work from memory:

“You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers in the chapel are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and … we shall bring it home with us. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands.”

And further, after Mozart’s mother wonders if this is a good idea:

“There is not the slightest cause for anxiety. … All Rome and even the Pope himself know that he wrote it down. There is nothing whatever to fear; on the contrary, the achievement has done him great credit.”

Later this same year, Mozart received the Order of the Golden Spur from the pope, a type of knighthood of which Mozart was very proud—even signing his name as Chevalier—until he was teased and taunted by other nobility.

The English music chronicler Charles Burney published an edition of Allegri’s Miserere in 1771, but there is no evidence that this was Mozart’s transcription, the original of which is now lost. In the 19th and 20th centuries other versions of the work were published as well, so that what has come down to us is far removed from Allegri’s original chant harmonization, preserved in two Vatican manuscripts.  Nevertheless, when hearing the stark beauty of the monophonic (single line) chant, expanded to four- and five-part settings, each of which is an elaboration of earlier sections, it is clear why this work has fascinated listeners for hundreds of years.

On December 14, 1784, Mozart was inducted as an Apprentice in the “Zur Wohltätigkeit” (Beneficence) Masonic Lodge. Within a month, he was made a Journeyman and soon became a master Mason. Mozart often offered his musical talents for lodge functions and composed a great deal of Masonic music.  His Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477 dates from no later than November 1785; it was probably composed for a memorial service for two lodge brothers, Duke Georg August von Mecklenburg and Count Franz Esterházy von Galántha.  This orchestral music for strings plus a full complement of wind instruments incorporates a chant melody and features a poignant sighing motive.

When Mozart moved to Vienna in the early 1780s, he studied Bach fugues in at the home of Baron van Swieten, writing to his father: “I go every Sunday where nothing is played but Bach and Handel.” Mozart arranged Bach fugues for these musical meetings and was also commissioned by van Swieten to arrange oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah.

Mozart probably heard the Bach motet Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225 in 1789 as part of a two-month trip to Berlin and other cities he undertook with Prince Karl Lichnowsky, his patron and fellow Mason.  One of their first stops was Leipzig, where Mozart played the organ at St. Thomas Church, with one contemporary account claiming that, “old Sebastian Bach had risen again.”

Why Bach wrote specific motets is not always certain; this is the case with Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225, composed between 1726 and 1727. Scored for double chorus, this motet contains three sections and uses texts from Psalms 103 and 150. In this intricate and complex work, Bach carefully draws our attention to important words in the text. For example, Bach emphasizes the first word, ‘singet’ (sing) by simultaneously using a pedal tone, text repetition, and embellished melodies in imitation to proclaim this word in an infectiously upbeat setting that carries through the rest of the work.

In the summer of 1791, Mozart received a commission for a Requiem, a musical setting of the texts of the Mass for the Dead. Originally sung in chant, these funeral texts have been set by many composers throughout history. The person who delivered the offer did not identify himself or the source of the commission. Constanze Mozart said that she did not discover the identity of this patron until 1800. The mysterious patron was, in fact, a wealthy nobleman, Count Walsegg, who was in the habit of commissioning works anonymously. When sponsoring a private performance of a musical composition he commissioned, Count Walsegg often copied it out in his own handwriting and removed the composer’s name, becoming the “composer” of the work himself. The specific commission of a requiem was in honor of the count’s wife who had died earlier that year.

Mozart died on December 5, 1791, leaving the work unfinished. In order to satisfy the terms of the commission, Mozart’s widow turned to three of her husband’s students for help. Mozart had completed the opening movements of the Requiem (the Introit through the Kyrie plus eight measures of the Lacrymosa) and sketched the vocal and instrumental parts for some of the other movements. Owing to the work of Mozart’s students in completing the Requiem, today there are two manuscripts in four different hands.

Mozart’s working manuscript initially consisted of the Introit, the only movement of the Requiem completed by the composer, as well as other movements in various stages of the compositional process. For example, the Kyrie contains vocal parts in Mozart’s handwriting; instrumental parts which double the vocal lines were then added by Mozart’s student Franz Jacob Freystädtler—his only contribution to the composition. For other movements, the orchestral parts were supplied by another of Mozart’s students, Joseph Eybler; he had received Mozart’s working manuscript from Constanze but later returned the score without completing it. She then asked Franz Xaver Süssmayr to undertake the task of completing the Requiem.

Süssmayr removed the Introit and Kyrie from Mozart’s working manuscript, copied out the rest of Mozart’s music in his own handwriting, and completed the work. Süssmayr then forged Mozart’s signature and added the date “1792” to the manuscript. This was the copy given to Count Walsegg in fulfillment of the commission.

The Requiem was premiered at a benefit concert sponsored by the Gesellschaft der Associerten Cavalerie (Society of Associated Gentlemen) on January 2, 1793. This group of noblemen, led by Baron van Swieten, paid for all performance-related expenses and Constanze Mozart received all of the profits from the performance. Count Walsegg held a private performance of the completed Mozart Requiem as part of a memorial service for his wife on December 14, 1793; the score was written in his handwriting and named him as the composer. Earlier, portions of the Requiem had been performed at a memorial liturgy for Mozart on December 10, 1791.

Mozart had studied and arranged Handel oratorios in the late 1780s as part of a commission from van Swieten’s Gesellschaft. Handel’s influence can be heard in the choral sections of the Requiem, which are also infused with Mozart’s own sense of drama and solemnity. In the first part of the first movement, Mozart layers the sounds of the winds, strings, and voices into a supplication for the deceased.

The use of chant in the second section and then the combining of the first two sections in the final part intertwine old and new into a prayer for eternal rest.

The Kyrie is a fugue in which the imitation in the voices can be heard in the melding of the text so that “kyrie” and “eleison” often sound simultaneously.

Mozart’s dramatic choral writing continues in movements such as Dies irae and Rex tremendae.

In the latter movement, layers of voices, strings, and winds flow out from a homophonic opening; however, with the text “Salve me” (Save me) the vocal and orchestral layers separate, releasing the built-up musical tension and underscoring this prayer.

One of the most recognizable movements, Lacrymosa, opens as a lyrical aria for chorus.

The Lux aeterna musically unites prayers for eternal rest (“requiem”) and perpetual light (“lux aeterna”). In the final movement, the music of the first movement returns, rounding out the Requiem with a direct reference to the only movement completed by Mozart.

When a composition profoundly affects the listener, curiosity and the desire to learn as much as possible about the work and the circumstances of its composition naturally follow. Often, however, composers provide precious little information about their thoughts on the piece, or, as in Mozart’s Requiem, leave the composition itself unfinished. The gaps that remain may never be filled or are reimagined in succeeding generations. Still, the most important voice of the composer —the music— remains.


Teresa M. Neff | 2019