Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

I go on working because composing is less tiring than resting. Moreover I have nothing more to fear. I can tell from my condition that the hour is striking; I am about to breathe my last; I have come to the end of my life before having the full enjoyment of my talent. And yet life has been so beautiful, my career began under such happy auspice.2

In the last year of his life, Mozart was no longer riding on the fame of his child-prodigy beginnings as the darling of royalty. Commissions for his compositions had nearly dried up. He was sunk in debt with a household that included a wife with health problems and two sons (Karl was seven and Franz a few months old). Although his short lifetime had been a cycle of brief successes and long disappointments, the last ten years of his life were particularly bleak financially. What then prompted Count Walsegg-Stuppach to send an unsigned letter, via messenger dressed in somber gray, asking Mozart to name his price for a requiem? The count was in the habit of procuring scores to copy in his own hand and claim credit. How easy it would be to play the same trick with a piece by the diminished Mozart. But no, the count’s wife had recently died, and “he surreptitiously set about obtaining a beautiful requiem in her honor.”3

Mozart was terribly ill, but he pressed through an incredible amount of work in 1791, the final year of his life. As fate would have it, he received an urgent, handsome commission for an opera for the King of Bohemia’s coronation. The enormous task had a deadline that would be impossible for Mozart to reach by himself. He enlisted his pupil and copyist, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The coronation opera, La Clemenza di Tito, was a dismal failure, over which Mozart suffered deep melancholy. The same year, Mozart also composed most of the Requiem, finished an opera-in-progress, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and created other lasting works. Fortunately, despite its first tepid performance conducted by Mozart, The Magic Flute took off like wildfire, bringing much needed income and raising his spirits. In this one miraculous achievement, Mozart both created German opera and raised it to its pinnacle. The man who found work less tiring than rest then set to work on the Requiem, literally up to his last breath.

Imagine how Süssmayr must have felt when Mozart’s wife, Constanze, asked him to finish the Requiem after Mozart’s death so she could collect the remaining half of the unpaid fee. Süssmayr was intimately familiar with Mozart’s prolific and brilliant career (more than 600 works), and he had witnessed Mozart’s last meteoric year as a composer. No one could compare to such a master, and surely Süssmayr dreaded unfavorable comparison at best, abysmal failure at worst. Constanze spurred him on by enlisting her musical advisor Maximilian Stadler to supervise the effort. Unlike two other Mozart students, Franz Jacob Freystadler and Joseph Eybler, who flagged in their attempts, Süssmayr completed the Requiem.

When Mozart died, the four-part vocal score and the bass part of the instrumentation up to the “Sanctus” (except the “Lacrimosa”) were done, and the building blocks for the orchestral instrumentation were in place. Constanze, in debt and with no immediate means of support, pressed first one then another of Mozart’s pupils into the awesome task of finishing the Requiem. Freystadler wrote accompaniment in the “Kyrie,” and Eybler wrote instrumentation in the “Dies irae” and the “Lacrimosa.” According to a letter Constanze wrote to Stadler, she gave Mozart’s drafts to Süssmayr, which included sketches for the “Agnus Dei,” the “Sanctus,” and the “Benedictus.” She also gave him the unfinished work of Freystadler and Eybler, to which Süssmayr made minor changes. For the “Lux aeterna” the movement that concludes the piece, Süssmayr used measures from the opening movement, the “Introitus,” and from the second movement, the “Kyrie,” with adjustments for the different text, probably based on conversations with Mozart. Scholars have recently noted that the “Agnus Dei” includes an extensive quotation from Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D (K220), known as the “Sparrow Mass.”

Despite completion by many hands, the beloved Requiem endures as a Mozartian masterpiece. We do know it poured from Mozart’s very soul as his own death loomed. For a man raised in strict adherence to the practices of Catholicism and on the belief that mortal sin was the path to eternal punishment in hell, Death was no trifling matter.

In the opening movement of the Requiem, the rhythm of pulling a huge burden underscores the choral prayer for eternal rest. We hear this rhythm again and again, which surely represents the near presence of Death that Mozart felt as he composed. “The last movement of his lips was an endeavor to indicate where the kettledrums should be used in the Requiem.4 Notice the drumbeats in the “Rex tremendae majestatis,” a movement that addresses a God capable of both fearsome wrath and awesome salvation. The trumpet in “Dies irae” conjures up a terrifying Last Judgment, perhaps inspired by Mozart’s childhood fear of the instrument. His father tried to cure him by having a trumpet player blare loudly in his face, which, not surprisingly, had the opposite effect. Mozart blanched and nearly passed out.

We again hear the underlying burden of Death portrayed in the rhythms of the “Lacrimosa” and in the final “Lux aeterna.” In the fugal “quam olim Abrahae” in the “Offertorium” that follows the “Lacrimosa,” we might well ask whether the promise of eternal life has ever been so aptly portrayed in reminding God of his promise to seed the earth with generations. Then in the “Sanctus,” we struggle to shake loose our troublesome mortal coil and let our spirit ascend. Mozart’s music is characterized as “brilliance and gaiety on the surface, but underneath a dark vein of melancholy.”5 The arresting undertone and dancing melodies of the Requiem capture his essence.

Constanze was able to stage the first Requiem performance on January 2, 1793, beating the donor to the punch. Count Walsegg-Stuppach’s first performance did not take place until December 14, 1793.

Scholars continue to pick through existing drafts of the Requiem to pinpoint errors and inconsistencies with how Mozart might have composed it. All the same, the piece has taken its place among the great choral masterworks. The music chosen for the funerals of Haydn, Chopin, and Beethoven was Mozart’s Requiem.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. From 1777 onward, Mozart called himself Wolfgang Amadè. He only used Amadeus in jest in the mock name “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus,” according to James M. Keller, in New York Philharmonic program notes (reference undated).
  2. Mozart wrote these words in a letter to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte three months before his death. Quoted in Mozart by Annette Kolb, Prion Books Limited, London, 1937.
  3. The quote is from Kolb. Details of the count’s commission surfaced in 1964, but Mozart’s delusional perception was that Death itself had commissioned the Requiem.
  4. From a letter from Mozart’s sister-in-law, Sophie Haibl, who was at his bedside, quoted in Kolb.
  5. Oxford Dictionary of Music, Michael Kennedy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2006.