The ‘Requiem’ Was the Perfect Way to End a Year of Celebration for Austria’s Greatest Composer
As Mozart’s Year ended, Vienna bade farewell to its Wunderkind with six performances of the composers great Requiem. It seemed the perfect way to end a year of celebration of Austria’s, and perhaps Western music’s greatest composer. It was Mozart’s last commission, and his last work, left incomplete by his own death in strange circumstances.
Thus one night before the 215th anniversary of Mozart’s death, the Vienna Symphony along with the Singverein Chorus and a quartet of soloists, under the baton of Fabio Luisi, performed a dress rehearsal at the Musikverein’s Goldener Saal.
Of course, a dress rehearsal is like a silver platter that needs a final polish before the party. But this evening was not about perfection, although it was open to the public. As any other dress rehearsal, it was to ensure everything was well coordinated, that all threads were pulled together and the conductor’s wishes clear. The last retouches on this musical painting were needed, corners dabbed with chorus rehearsals, edges sharpened in orchestral sectionals.
Ten minutes into the rehearsal, a door opened in the back and Sir Simon Rattle slipped into a seat to listen. Just coming from his own rehearsal late Mozart Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic at Theater an der Wien, he was rumored to have come to hear alto Birgit Remmert, a singer he had discovered and promoted.
However, with all the interest and scholarship devoted to the Requiem over the years, the myth behind this work and its connection with Mozart’s death lingers on.
The myth begins with the anonymous commission by a "grey messenger," which led to speculation and fictitious accounts about why Mozart left his death mass unfinished.
"Last night I saw a Figure – the figure in my dreams," said Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, "it stood before my table, all in grey, its face still grey, still masked. And this time it spoke to me!"
The legendary rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) and Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825), composer and conductor of the Viennese court, led to the claim that Salieri had poisoned the great composer, the basis for Schaffer’s tale, made popular on film by director Milos Forman.
In the play, Salieri confessed he had imitated that messenger-figure in order to drive Mozart to his own death.
"How I did really murder Mozart?" he asks. "With arsenic – out of envy!"
The "grey messenger," as this character became known in the Mozart literature, was a servant of the music-loving count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach, who commissioned a Requiem from Mozart anonymously, in memory of his wife, who had died in February 1791.
But there is still a debate as to how and why he died. Some say natural causes while others support the poisoning theory. Musicological research generally confirms the natural causes theory. Natural or not, however, these causes prevented him from completion of the Requiem.
A 1980 biography by German author Wolfgang Hildesheimer attempted to reconstruct the last months of the Austrian composer, and was unable to confirm any long-term illness or chronic disease that could suggest his sudden death later that year. After all, the master kept his busy performing and composing schedule right through September, 1791.
"Mozart’s late, but sudden collapse, following long periods of intense work, rarely interrupted by indisposition, was concluded by a short, equally restless act of death. Mozart had even attempted to rehearse the Requiem ten hours before his death with his friends," wrote Paumgartner in Mozart, Leben und Werk.
The cause of death, was Frieselfieber, an imprecise name for an infection with shivering, possibly linked to poisoning from mercury, used erroneously by doctors at that time as a treatment for this type of disease.
Elsewhere in Vienna, the Requiem was taking different form. The jazz club Porgy & Bess held a CD presentation of a fascinating version performed for classical string quartet by Peter Lichtenthal, a Mozart contemporary. The players, StringFizz, are a group of top women musicians from various Viennese orchestras. The event was a live radio broadcast, with Kulturradio Ö1 as partner for this project.
In quartet form, the big orchestral work becomes very compact. Fugues became direct and crisp, the musical climax reached in the Lacrimosa, where the strings achieved a rich vibrancy that seemed implausible with only four players.
Not surprisingly, the demands on the performer are high, and signs of strain were unavoidable; occasionally the intonation began to drift in the first violin particularly.
But the astonishing energy held until the end -- such a vibrant and breathtaking performance of the complete work was a remarkable achievement to hear live. No interval, no rest, playing that brought the audience to its feet at the end.
Mozart’s death on December 5, 1791 did not, in the end, prevent completion of the funeral mass: His student, Franz Xaver Süßmayr (1766 – 1803), took on the task, with Mozart’s sketches, of wrapping up this final work.
"My immediate sensation – despite the fragmented manuscript and the often harshly criticized completion by Mozart’s student Süßmayr – was that of interconnection of the parts," wrote conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his book The Musical Dialogue, "the complete picture, which, in its architecture, was more stringent than I had noticed before. The added sections, therefore, are not musical impurity; they are in its entity Mozartian."
From a musical point of view, Süßmayr might not have been the first choice to be entrusted with this task, but he knew Mozart intimately and was aware of his creational stages. Mozart’s wife, Constanze, had actually asked composer Joseph Eybler first, but he declined.
Among music professionals, there seems no doubt that Süßmayr followed Mozart’s musical language closely, even in the sections for which no sketches survived, although in places his instrumentation is not as refined as in earlier sections.
No one knows for sure when Süßmayr finished Mozart’s Requiem, but it appears to have been within a year.
Back at the Musikverein’s Goldener Saal, there were some balancing problems between the chamber-sized orchestra of 45 and the 80-voice choir. The singing overpowered the delicate instrumental playing. But gradually, conductor Luisi solved the balance deficit, and in the Lacrimosa and Agnus Dei especially, the ensemble reached a surging emotional peak that completely succeeded.
Most noticeable was the unity of sound and character in soloist ensembles: Ricarda Merbeth (Soprano), Birgit Remmert (Alto), Herbert Lippert (Tenor) and Kwangchul Youn (Bass), singing with the sensitivity of string players. On their own, however, such as Merbeth’s solos in the opening movement, vocal power continued to feel disproportionate to the overall performance. Nevertheless, the instrumental colors merged beautifully, and the orchestra achieved a lively chamber music quality in the instrumental solos, both delicate and disarming.
Of course, one missed the grace and atmosphere that would be there the next night for the performance: the musicians were casually dressed and the singers were saving their voices for the evenings ahead. Instrument cases were lying around in the auditorium – all in all an impression of a work-in-progress… But a great one.
As the last chord hushed, the comfortably full house gave a generous round of applause. We rose, stretched, and turned to go; at the back, Sir Simon’s seat was empty. Another grey messenger had slipped away into the night.