ANNIVERSARIES: Mozart's Requiem Premiered at His Funeral 220 Years Ago


On December 10, 1791, after Mozart had died five days earlier at age 35, there was a memorial service in Vienna, and for the first time some of his Requiem was performed. It was not noted then what parts were played, but H.C. Robbins Landon, who has studied the Requiem completion in some depth and made his own edition, makes the obvious nomination: the movements that Mozart had largely completed, the Introit (Requiem aeternam), which was fully finished, and the Kyrie, for which Mozart had written all the vocal parts and the basso continuo, and which thus needed only the orchestration, which was accomplished at least well enough for that first performance by Franz Jakob Freystädtler (a student of Mozart's) doubling the choral parts with instrumentation, while another student of Mozart's, Franz Xaver Sűssmayr, composed original parts for trumpets and timpani.

Jan Swafford recently wrote, "Like most composers of the Enlightenment, Mozart was not much into tragic sentiments in his work, and though both he and his friend Haydn were eager to write religious music, what they produced generally did not reach the level of their greatest work. None of Mozart's masses and such are as powerful and beloved as his comic operas. The exception is the Requiem. Its first movement, the only one he more or less finished on his own, is the most tragic movement written since Bach. It is music from a man staring into his own grave."

Swafford is a respected music historian; that quote is not the romanticizing sentiments of someone who believes that the movie Amadeus is fact, or who believes the legend that Death himself told Mozart to compose a Requiem Mass in preparation for his imminent demise. The power of the Mozart Requiem does not come from the tales that have attached themselves to it, I believe that it is its power that attracts these accretions. Well, that and the fact that his widow considerably obscured the historical record in an effort to get paid by the commissioner of the composition, Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who had the charming habit of commissioning works from famous composers for him to pass off as his own pieces.

Sometime earlier that year, perhaps in July, a messenger from the Count anonymously commissioned the Requiem. The Count's wife had died in February. Mozart had more pressing matters -- the composition and premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito; the completion and revision of The Magic Flute for its premiere -- and probably did not begin work on the Requiem until October. Mozart's illness had first struck in September while he was in Prague for the premiere of La clemenza di Tito, but not so seriously as to keep him from working or even travelling. (It's not known what he had, and there has been much speculation; the general consensus now leans towards rheumatic fever.) In November it got worse, and on the 20th he was confined to bed. Sometime between then and his death on December 5 was when he supposedly spoke to Sűssmayr about how to complete the Requiem if Mozart was not able to, although that conversation may be entirely mythical.

Mozart had managed to compose the choir and basso continuo parts, along with some bits of orchestration, of the Sequence through its first five sections and into the beginning of the Lacrimosa, and the two movements of the Offertorium had mostly complete choral parts; the Domine also had its continuo part, though the fugue was left to be figured out.

Constanze, faced with her late husband's debts and a future of uncertain economic stability, felt she had to deliver to the Count a completed Requiem averred to be Mozart's entirely to retain the money already paid and the bonus promised on completion. She asked one of Mozart's more skilled pupils, Joseph Eybler, who had helped Mozart during his illness, to complete the Requiem. He filled inmost of the orchestration of the Sequence and added a bit to the composition of the Lacrimosa, but then gave up. Constanze then had to resort to the less skilled Sűssmayr, who redid the parts Eybler had worked on and added the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communio.

How much of the last four sections Mozart might have contributed to at least partially is a matter of much debate. Sometime between November and Mozart's death on December 5, he supposedly spoke to Sűssmayr about how to complete the Requiem if Mozart was not able to, although that conversation may be entirely mythical. Supposedly there were additional fragmentary notations left by Mozart beyond the two manuscripts we have (one begun by Mozart, containing the additions of Eybler and Freystädtler; the other all in Sűssmayr's handwriting, the version given to the Count). The Communio (Lux aeterna) is built on material from the first two movements, which Mozart himself supposedly suggested.The theme of the Benedictus has been found in the exercise book of another Mozart pupil, Barbara Ployer. Richard Maunder has pointed out a relationship between the Agnus Dei and the Gloria of Mozart's K.220 Mass. The Sanctus is apparently all Sűssmayr's, and has long been denigrated as generic and too short in the context of the Requiem's overall structure. Much of Sűssmayr's work in other movements has also come in for criticism, both for outright errors (the then-unforgivable sin of parallel fifths) and for his rather mechanical orchestration decisions. A number of editors have taken various paths to alternative versions, as will shortly be discussed, but Sűssmayr's edition remains the one most frequently performed.

Iride Martinez, soprano; Monica Groop, alto; Steve Davislim, tenor; Kwangchul Youn, bass; Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester; Christoph Spering (Opus 111)

This 2001 recording contains a less-than-recommendable performance of the Süssmayr version but is mentioned because it contains a recording of the Mozart autograph parts from the Sequence and Offertory along with an Amen (more on that Amen later). Spering conducts the opening movement much too slowly (6:23!), sounding merely turgid, and I'm not fond of the soloists, especially Martinez's swooping phrasing and ugly vibrato. The partial orchestration of the only-Mozart Sequence and Offertory is perhaps only for more scholarly collectors, but it's interesting to hear what parts of the orchestration he considered important enough to make note of in preliminary fashion.

Edith Mathis, soprano; Julia Hamari, alto; Wieslaw Ochman, tenor; Kurt Riddersbusch, bass; Vienna State Opera Choir; Vienna Philharmonic; Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon)

For an old-fashioned view of the Süssmayr edition, monumental in tempo breadth (64:24) and sonic density -- perhaps the way to experience that first movement as Swafford hears it – it's hard to beat the somber tread of Böhm's 1971 rendition. The revisionism of the early music movement clearly had no impact whatsoever on ol' Karl, but this is a performance of straightforward conviction and full-throated intensity, perfect of its type, with none of the hey-look-at-me we get in Karajan's interpretation. The well-matched soloists are big-voiced but utterly mellifluous; even at its loudest the Vienna Philharmonic never blares, and the string sound in the introduction to the Recordare is luscious. And for as slow as Böhm takes it, tension never slackens, which is not only quite an accomplishment but very effective on its own terms. I don't think this is really the way to play this music anymore, but it still packs an enormous emotional wallop.

Barbara Bonney, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, contralto; Hans Peter Blochwitz, tenor; Willard White, bass; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner (Philips)

Moving forward 15 years, we come to the most thrilling period-instrument performance of the Requiem as completed by Süssmayr. This is Mozart Requiem as precursor to Berlioz's and Verdi's, a dramatic experience as much for the concert hall as the cathedral. With the use of period instruments and a smaller orchestra, notably in the strings, the balance between the strings and the winds, often tilted towards the latter, tends to clarify the textures and make for a bolder sound. Gardiner, one of the greatest choral conductors, offers impeccable vocal parts and a fine quartet of soloists to deliver his hair-raising interpretation with pinpoint precision.

Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Annette Markert, alto; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; La Chapelle Royale; Collegium Vocale; Orchestra des Champs-Élysées; Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi)

Recorded in concert in 1996, Herreweghe offers a kinder, gentler period Requiem (also Süssmayr); he is a tad slower than Gardiner in most movements, and phrases much less vehemently. Those who prefer to receive comfort from a Requiem, or want a more church-like experience, will enjoy this one, with the proviso that Herreweghe's soloists, while more than satisfactory, do not offer as glorious a sound as Gardiner's.

Emma Kirkby, soprano; Carolyn Watkinson, contralto; Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor; David Thomas, bass; Westminster Cathedral Boys Choir; Choir & Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood (L'Oiseau-Lyre)

Richard Maunder's edition, here in a 1983 recording by a fine period-instrument group and conductor, offers the most drastic solution to the flaws of Süssmayr: present the Requiem not as a full liturgical work, but as a torso, as it's called, an incomplete version. Maunder revises Süssmayr's orchestra to bring it closer to Mozart's personal style. Besides using some of Eybler's ideas, Maunder also uses the later operas as models, which some commentators find incompatible with a sacred work, but I find the darkness of some of these changes quite compatible with the sound of the first movement. More drastic interventions by Maunder are his different completion of the Lacrimosa, his addition of a completion of an Amen fugue (its theme the inversion of the opening theme) that Mozart had sketched out, entirely omitting the Sanctus and Benedictus, and revising the Agnus Dei and Lux aeterna to remove Süssmayr's gaucheries. The use of the Amen fugue is a particularly brilliant touch, fitting well with the work's structure. Hogwood's soloists, notably Kirkby, fit well with Maunder's sometimes less densely textured orchestration, and the use of boys in the upper choir parts is another nice touch.

Christine Brewer, soprano; Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Eric Owens, bass; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus; Donald Runnicles (Telarc)

This 2005 recording by modern forces uses the Robert D. Levin edition, which takes the approach of accepting Süssmayr's contributions but tidying up his craftsmanship, plus adding a different completion of Mozart's Amen fugue (the distaste for Süssmayr's two-chord Amen is widespread). This is the revision for people who don't want to be brought up short by a lot of differences with the familiar version, in a performance that offers the big sound of traditional performances.

Marina Ulewicz, soprano; Barbara Hölzl, mezzo-soprano; Jörg Hering, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Tölzer Boys Choir; Tafelmusik; Bruno Weil (Sony Classical)

H.C. Robbins Landon's edition is another interesting alternative; he too sticks with the completion of Mozart's time, but includes Eybler's changes in preference to Süssmayr's in the Sequence. Listeners for whom even Levin's addition of the Amen is too drastic an alteration may find this period performance irreproachable; casual listeners may not even notice the differences, but careful listeners will appreciate its little improvements.  - Steve Holtje

Ralph Carney

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who most recently wrote a three-part song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo.