Requiem in D minor
Origin: Vienna, late 1791
Scoring: S, A, T, B, SATB, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, timpani, 3 trombones, strings, organ
The mysterious circumstances of the Requiem’s commission, and the fact that it was left incomplete by a dying Mozart, have ensured a continuing fascination with his last composition. But the “romantic” nature of the Requiem’s creation may have bestowed upon it an aura that it does not quite deserve. “No other work by Mozart has caused so much ink to be spilled,” writes Alfred Einstein, “and none has been so unjustly estimated — chiefly by people who knew none of Mozart’s other church works, not the C minor Mass, nor the litanies, nor any of the C major Masses of 1776. And in fact it is difficult to remain completely cool and to let the facts speak for themselves.”
Each generation has added its own layer of embellishment to the story of the Requiem. But many of the elements were in place by 1808, when Franz Xaver Niemetschek published his biography of Mozart. Niemetschek wrote:
Shortly before the Coronation of the Emperor Leopold, and before Mozart received the commission to go to Prague, an unsigned letter was handed to him by an unknown messenger which, with many flattering remarks, contained the question whether Mozart would like to undertake the composition of a Requiem, for what price, and how soon he would be able to deliver it.Mozart, who was accustomed to take no step without consulting his wife, related to her this strange commission, and at the same time mentioned his desire to try his hand at this type of work too, the more so as the elevated and exalted style of church music was always close to his genius. She advised him to accept the commission. He therefore wrote to the unknown gentleman to say that he would write the Requiem for a certain sum; he could not exactly state the time he would require to complete it; but he would like to know the destination to which he was to deliver the work when it was finished. The same messenger shortly reappeared, bringing not only the agreed honorarium with him, but also the promise that, as he had been so reasonable in his price, he would receive a generous additional payment on handing over the work. He was moreover to write according to the mood and frame of his mind, but he was not to trouble to try and find out the name of his patron, for this search would certainly be in vain….
On his return [from Prague] he at once took up the Requiem, and worked at it with much effort and keen interest: but his illness visibly increased its hold on him and made him dark and melancholy. His wife noticed it with sadness. One day when she was driving with him in the Prater to divert and cheer him, and they both sat there alone, Mozart began to talk of death, and maintained that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears were in the eyes of this sensitive man. “I am only too conscious,” he continued, “my end will not be long in coming: for sure, someone has poisoned me! I cannot rid my mind of this thought.”
This speech fell heavily on his wife’s heart; she was scarcely able to comfort him, and to show him the groundlessness of his heavy imaginings. As she was of the opinion that he was sickening from some illness, and the Requiem was overstraining his sensitive nerves, she called the doctor and took away the score of the Requiem….
On the day of his death he had the score brought to his bed. “Did I not say that I was writing this Requiem for myself?” he said, and carefully looked through the whole score with moist eyes. It was the last painful, parting glance at his beloved art — a presentiment of his immortality!
Immediately after his death the messenger announced himself, asked for the work, unfinished as it was, and received it. From that moment the widow did not see him again, nor did she learn the least thing about the Requiem or the man who had commissioned it. Every reader can imagine for himself that they tried hard to seek out the mysterious messenger, but all means and attempts were fruitless.
Niemetschek drew upon several sources for his biography, not all of whom were reliable. And he may have added a few dramatic touches of his own. He is incorrect on at least two counts: The messenger did not show up to ask for the completed work after Mozart’s death, and by 1800 Constanze was well aware of who had commissioned it.
The “mysterious stranger” mentioned by Niemetschek was, in all likelihood, Franz Anton Leitgeb (or Leutgeb), steward of Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach. The count was a music lover who gave concerts at his home twice a week. When it came to acquiring music he spared no expense, though he always recopied the scores in his own hand. Thus only he knew the identity of the composer.
After each performance, Walsegg would ask his guests who had written the music. “Usually we guessed the Count himself, because he did in fact occasionally compose a few trifles; he would smile at that and be pleased that he had (or so he believed) succeeded in mystifying us; but we laughed because he thought us so credulous,” wrote one of his guests, Anton Herzog, many years later. “We were all young folk, and considered that we were giving our master an innocent pleasure. And in such manner the mutual deception continued for several years.”
Walsegg commissioned the Requiem in honor of his wife, who had died the preceding February. Leitgeb (or someone else) was the intermediary; in July 1791 he delivered to Mozart the commission, along with a substantial sum of money. The balance would be paid upon delivery. The whole affair was to be kept secret. But whether Walsegg intended to take full credit for the Requiem, as has been alleged, is open to debate.
According to Einstein, Mozart sketched about 40 pages of the score before setting it aside to work on La clemenza di Tito (K. 621) and Die Zauberflöte (K. 620): “He was able to finish only the Requiem and Kyrie, and to sketch the eight sections from the Dies irae through the Hostias — that is, to set down in the score the voice parts, bass, and hints for the instrumentation. The last three movements were completely lacking.”
Mozart was unable to do much more. His sister-in-law, Sophie Habel, in describing the scene almost 30 years later, wrote that on the day before his death “Sissmaier [sic] was there at M’s bedside; and the well-known Requiem lay on the coverlet, and Mozart was explaining to him how he thought he should finish it after his death.”
Stories about how the Requiem was rehearsed the day before Mozart’s death seem to have originated in an 1827 posthumous tribute to Benedikt Schack, the singer who created the role of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte:
“On the very eve of his death, [Mozart] had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed, and himself (it was two o’clock in the afternoon) sang the alto part; Schack, the family friend, sang the soprano line, as he had always previously done, Hofer, Mozart’s brother-in-law, took the tenor, Gerle, later a bass singer at the Mannheim Theater, the bass. They were at the first bars of the Lacrimosa when Mozart began to weep bitterly, laid the score on one side, and eleven hours later, at one o’clock in the morning (of 5 December 1791, as is well known), departed this life.”
This anonymous anecdote is more than a little unbelievable: Eleven hours before his death, Mozart would have been in extreme pain and, because of the swelling of the extremities, would hardly have been able to move, much less sing. But curiously, most biographers continue to repeat it as fact.
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Constanze, who had been left in dire straits by her husband’s death, was desperate to finish the commission. She first approached Mozart’s pupil Joseph Eybler, who took up the project briefly. It was finished by another pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who wrote the three remaining movements and completed the instrumentation. The score was delivered to Walsegg in December 1793. Before delivering it, Constanze took the precaution of having a copy made; when she attempted to have it published several years later, Walsegg protested, claiming he was the sole owner. A lawsuit was avoided, but Constanze had to pay Walsegg for the publication rights.
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The Requiem — at least, those parts that Mozart was able to complete — was first performed in St. Michael’s Church in Vienna on Dec. 10, in a tribute organized by impresario (and the first Papageno) Emanuel Schikeneder. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of Mozart’s staunchest patrons, had it performed in a Jan. 2, 1793, benefit concert that collected 300 ducats (1,350 florins) for Constanze Mozart and her children. Walsegg conducted his own performance on Dec. 14, 1793, in the parish church at Wiener-Neustadt.
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“The Requiem, like the great C minor Mass, remained a torso, but in a quite different sense,” writes Einstein. “In the Mass we have the whole Kyrie, the whole Gloria, the whole Sanctus and Benedictus, and all of these movements in a version that is authentic down to the smallest detail. In the Requiem small doubts arise as early as in the Dies irae and large ones after the first eight measures of the Lacrimosa. And yet, with the very first measures of the Introit — Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine — we know definitely Mozart’s intention, his attitude towards death . . . Death is not a terrible vision but a friend.”