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 surrounded by 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.

Everything you always wanted to know about... Mozart’s Requiem
Une page du manuscrit du Requiem de Mozart, 1791, © Wikimedia Commons

1791 was both an exceptional and fateful year for Mozart. In addition to his Masonic Cantata and to the opera seriaLa Clemenza di Tito, he wrote two of his major works: The Magic Flute, a wonderful and initiatory opera buffa, and his famous Requiem, a work surrounded by legends and left unfinished because of his death at the age of only 35, in poverty and sickness.

His own tribute

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

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“As death [...] is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that death's image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling.”

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 decided to compose his own Requiem - a tribute by Mozart himself, his final confession.

Alone and against everybody

In 1789, problems were piling up for Mozart. If on one hand, two years earlier, his Don Giovanni was considered a triumph, times had now changed in Vienna, and the composer was out of fashion. The times were no longer in favour of art: following the French Revolution, tensions were escalating throughout Europe and Austria was preparing itself for war. Culture was the first to suffer: the number of concerts was cut in half and Mozart was consumed by financial debt. In 1790, the emperor of Austria and protector of the composer, Joseph II, passed away, and the new emperor slowly cast Mozart aside, in particular due to 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 was also forced separated from his mentor and friend, “Papa Haydn”. In fact, a theatre director had just offered both composers a very advantageous contract in London. But unlike Haydn, Mozart refused and decided to stay in Vienna. Did he hope to take revenge for all the indignities he had suffered? Was he too sick to leave? In any case, Mozart was surely going through 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 as 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 was no masked Machiavellic Salieri who paid a visit to Mozart, several weeks earlier, to commission a Requiem Mass and announce his imminent death.

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

The person who really commissioned the mass is Count Franz von Walsegg, a fan of trickery, often commissioning works by composers to then pass them off as his own at his private concerts, those in fact these were no more than copies of already existing pieces. To honour the memory of his young wife, and to show himself as a brilliant composer, he anonymously commissioned the Requiem from Mozart. Already very weak, the young composer also had other projects to finish, the sum of money promised by the Count motivated him to get to work.

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

A piece written by many

It is not quite accurate to say that the Requiem is entirely Mozart’s work. On the day of his death, only two parts were (almost) completed: the Introitus and the Kyrie. The rest remained only as drafts, with only the voice and some indications. The famous Lacrimosa, so beloved today, was actually incomplete, and stopped 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 took possession of her husband’s letters. She then asked two of Mozart's former students to complete the work: Joseph Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayr, in order to collect the promised payment. Count Walsegg (who commissioned the work) was seemingly unaware of the change and therefore gave Constance the much awaited sum of money.

Süssmayr, the student who actually completed Mozart's Requiem, was chosen by Constanze because of his writing style similar to that of her husband. He did not, however, possess his genius. In order to complete the work, he drew inspiration largely from the fragments left by Mozart, as well as many of his earlier works. For the ending, Süssmayr chose to use the beginning of the Requiem - was he perhaps afraid of betraying his master, or did he hope to raise the dead by completing the mass in his name...

As strong as death

Everything is calculated so that the work resembles death itself: it is both pathetic and terrifying, calm and terrible. Written for four soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass), choir and symphonic orchestra, Mozart excluded all wind instruments (flute and oboe), considered too joyful, in order to only keep the basset horn, an ancestor of the clarinet, with a more muted 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 or virtuosic solos.

The spectacular is to be found elsewhere: the choir is enhanced and its power is allowed to be fully felt. 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, followed by attempts to soften this anger, and then again cries of terror… Everything trembles in angst, fever and impatience. Mozart’s last composition achieves a point of sublime excellence.

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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 began writing his Requiem, he was therefore supported by a long tradition. In addition to Gregorian chants, one of his greatest sources of inspiration was the Requiem by Michael Haydn, younger brother of Joseph, from whom he borrowed the overall structure.

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Following a long tradition of Requiems, the key of D minor has become the symbol of the afterlife in music. Mozart’s work was thus written in D minor, and the same was applied to the murdered Commendatore in Don Giovanni, and Schubert’s String Quartet No.14, known as Death and the Maiden.