Mozart: Requiem for a Prodigy

Mozart: Requiem for a Prodigy

Few composers have had as lasting an impact on the world of classical music as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His talent for composition made him a celebrity in the courts and concert halls of late 18th-century Europe and gave his music a popular appeal that remains to this day. Despite this fact, Mozart’s life was marked by periods of financial instability and depression – factors which may have contributed to his untimely death at the young age of 35. Details of his early life are well known, documented in letters and correspondence, whereas many of the events of his later years are unknown or uncertain.  The most notorious of these events involves his Requiem – the monumental work he was unable to finish.

A handwritten excerpt from the Dies Irae section of Mozart's Requiem
A handwritten excerpt from the Dies Irae section of Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem, composed in 1791, is unusual in more ways than one. Musically, the piece is atypical for the time, in that it borrows heavily from Handel and Bach, with whom Mozart had become obsessed in his later years. He then combined these outdated compositional references with strikingly modern orchestration, utilizing trombones, basset horns, organ, and strings together in ways which were uncommon for the time. Our 21st-century ears may be deaf to these peculiarities, but to listeners of the day the first performance of the Requiem must have sounded complex and strange.

At the time of his death on December 5, 1791, Mozart had written a substantial portion of the Requiem, but not a majority. The remainder was completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, whose version remains the most commonly performed score of Mozart’s Requiem. According to Mozart’s widow, Constanze, Mozart left explicit instructions on “little scraps of paper” for how the Requiem should be completed. However, there is little evidence to indicate that these instructions existed and due to the differing style of the sections known to be written by Süssmayr, it is likely that Constanze’s claim is false. As a matter of fact, much of what is unknown about the circumstances of Mozart’s death and his Requiem is directly due to her actions.

Portrait of Constanze Mozart by Hans Hansen
Portrait of Constanze Mozart by Hans Hansen

After Mozart passed away, Constanze was obligated to make it seem like the Requiem was finished and written entirely by Mozart himself in order to receive the commission for the completed work. Without the revenue from the Requiem, Constanze would have quickly become destitute. In order to secure her own well-being, she spread misinformation, not only about the completion and authorship of the work, but also about Mozart’s and her whereabouts in the days and weeks leading up to his death; she gave conflicting stories to each publication she spoke with, making it impossible to separate fact from fiction. Due to Constanze’s efforts of self-preservation, we can never know the exact truth of the events surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem.

The nominal goal of historians is to accurately describe the past in detail, so that future generations may know true accounts of what has happened. Constanze’s actions frustrated this goal, but in taking those actions it is possible she gave the musical world something infinitely more valuable: a seminal, enigmatic piece that is performed in its entirety though it will never be complete. She created a mythology that made Mozart larger than life, one which may be the very reason why we still perform his works to this day.

To perform Mozart’s Requiem in Carnegie Hall or at historic venues all over the world contact us at 212-239-0205 or visit our website at www.midamerica-music.com. MidAmerica Productions has been the number one producer of choral concerts in Carnegie Hall since 1984. We have staged over 1300 concerts worldwide including dozens of World, US, and New York premieres.

 

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