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Mozart's Requiem - A Brief History


Few musical compositions have aroused as much awe and sense of mystery as Mozart's Requiem Mass. This is due not only to the unique power and genius of the music but also to the circumstances surrounding its creation. Reams of paper have been blackened concerning the mysterious circumstances of this phenomenal composition. Each successive generation has added to an already tangled collection of myths and legends. The film Amadeus (1984), as entertaining as it was, did much to obscure and confuse the facts.

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The Requiem's Commission

The Count Franz von Walsegg commissioned Mozart to compose the work in order to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death. In July of 1791, through an intermediary, the Count offered Mozart a sizable sum of money, half of which was paid in advance with the other half to be paid upon completion. The eccentric Count was an amateur musician and patron of music who regularly held private concerts. He often commissioned works that he passed off as his own, but as some of his regular guests revealed, it was a pretense that all were aware of and they good-naturedly took part in the innocent fiction.

It is generally agreed that the Count also wished to pass Mozart's Requiem off as a creation of his own, but this cannot be known for sure. Although Mozart accepted the commission in July he didn't begin working on it in earnest until October. The months before October were actually fruitful ones for the composer, who received numerous commissions for other works. During October and November Mozart finally began working on the score, but he quickly fell ill and was confined to his bed. He died in the early hours of December 5th, 1791 with the Requiem unfinished.

An Incomplete Requiem

It is clearly understood that Mozart did not finish the composition, but how much of it was completed by others and to what degree is something that has inspired much debate. Much of this confusion can be attributed to Mozart's wife, Constanze. She was placed in a difficult financial situation after her husband's death and understandably sought to recoup the remainder of the work's commission from the Count. However, to do this she needed to the maintain the perception that it was completed by Mozart alone. To this end, she asked Joseph von Eybler, who was a composer and great friend to Mozart, to complete the score. After some work on the score he determined that he could not complete it and returned it to Constanze, most likely due to his great respect for his departed friend.

Then, Constanze asked Franz Sussmayr, a colleague and pupil of Mozart's who had already helped the dying composer with writing the score. It was long thought that Sussmayr was a student of the great composer, but there is little evidence to support this belief. It seems that later, when Sussmayr's hand in the composition was discovered, Constanze portrayed him as a student in order to make it seem like he was simply completing Mozart's instructions rather than completing the score according to his own lights.

In any case, Sussmayr worked feverishly to finish the score, which he did in early 1792. In late 1793 a copy of the completed composition, with a counterfeit signature of Mozart, was given to the Count. For decades it was believed that the composition was entirely in Mozart's hand. However, those close to Mozart knew the truth, which was eventually revealed and by the 1820's the debates over authorship ensued. Complicating the situation was the fact that the Count's copy had disappeared and did not reappear until 1839. Once it did though, a comparison between it and the original showed which parts were truly written by Mozart himself.

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Who Wrote Which Parts

Mozart wrote the opening (Inroitus) in its entirety. For the Kyrie and the first five movements of the Sequence, he completed the vocal parts and the figured bass lines. He didn't complete the orchestration for these five movements, but he did leave clear indications of his intentions. For this reason these parts in their entirety can be seen as the work of Mozart himself. The last movement of the Sequence (Lacrimosa) breaks off unfinished after only eight bars. Mozart partially completed the two movements of the Offertorium also - the vocal and figured bass parts of Domine Jesu Christe and the vocal part of the Versus.

The remaining movements (Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Communio, as well as the orchestration for the Offertorium) are often regarded as the creation of Sussmayr. However, this might be a bit presumptive because we don't know how much direction or inspiration he received from Mozart. Sussmayr certainly discussed the Requiem with Mozart while the master was still alive and writing it, so the master's intentions may have been conveyed verbally. Furthermore, there is the question of "scraps of paper" with musical notes by Mozart, which Constanze claimed were used by Sussmayr. However, if these did in fact exist, they didn't survive or, at the very least, have never been found.

The important question is whether those parts completed by Sussmayr were done so according to his own lights or according to a fulfillment of Mozart's intentions, or possibly a little of both. The truth is, we will never know, but the listening public has for years been accustomed to the Sussmayr completion of Mozart's Requiem and seems to love and adore it all the same.


Christopher on February 10, 2011:

Thanks for posting that insightful article.

kimballtrombone on October 31, 2010:

Nice article, great piece of music! You've got to love the trombone solo in the "Tuba Mirum" portion.

David Guion from North Carolina on September 27, 2010:

Good summary of a fascinating story.

msorensson on September 25, 2010:

Wow..thank you. I love this piece but then again I love all of his work. Thank you for the information.

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