The story of Mozart’s Requiem is both fascinating and intriguing. In the last months of Mozart’s life, the composer was perhaps as inspirationally active as he had ever been, (two operas recently completed) despite his declining health. Yet the composition of the Requiem was something which weighed heavily on his mind and spirit and haunted him greatly. As he wrote in a letter to his father in 1787:
“as death when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the past few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting—young as I am—I may not live to see another day.” Read more
The various myths which have surrounded the Requiem were largely spread by his biographers after his death and were fanciful. Those who have seen Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus—later made into the box office hit film—know well the fictional notion that the composer Salieri was the mysterious stranger who visited Mozart and paid him to write the Requiem for an ‘anonymous patron’. The real truth is just as chilling. The stranger in grey was, in fact, the steward of a Viennese aristocrat, Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, a wealthy amateur musician who was accustomed to hiring professional musicians to perform in his home. He also liked to commission works secretly (copying the instrumental parts in his own hand) and then asking the players to guess who the composer was. The Count was commissioning Mozart to write the Requiem so he could pass it off as his own!
Mozart’s mysterious visitor undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his health, seeing this request as an omen of his own death. However, Mozart could not ignore the stage payments on offer to him as he was, by all accounts, considerably in debt. Already exhausted from writing two operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte—both in production at the time—he had little energy left for the Requiem, and he died without completing the work.
After Mozart’s death, his widow Constanza was confronted with a dilemma. In order to be paid the other half of the commissioning fee, she had to deliver a completed score, and being also in serious financial hardship following the death of her husband, she searched for someone to complete the work for her. Mozart had only finished the vocal parts and continuo from the Introit to the Offertory, and the Lacrimosa ended after just eight bars. She finally persuaded Mozart’s 25-year-old pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr to complete and score the Requiem. Süssmayr knew Mozart well and had been with him during the creative process—his handwriting was also very similar to Mozart’s. In fact, it may well be that Süssmayr wrote down from dictation many of Mozart’s ideas for the work. Süssmayr was certainly not a composer of Mozart’s ability or genius, but he was skilled enough for the job to be done well. Apparently, Count Franz was delighted with the result, which suited his devious purposes admirably!
The work might not exist today if it were not for the fact that Constanza broke the terms of the agreement and had the entire score copied out for her own safekeeping, in addition to the copy that was delivered to the Count. She also arranged a public benefit performance of the work which further frustrated the Count’s plans.
In fact, the popularity of Mozart’s Requiem today is owed to the considerable and skilled efforts of Süssmayr. It is for this reason that our recording is true to this version of the work. Others have tried to reconstruct the work from Mozart’s original sketches, but in my opinion, none has succeeded as well as Süssmayr. Indeed, the Benedictus is arguably one of the finest movements, and surely one of which even Mozart would have been proud.
It is true that the Süssmayr completion does suffer from some over-scoring at times, especially in the trombone writing during choruses, but with judicious ‘thinning out’ the clarity of the music can shine through luminously and one is easily convinced that we are listening to a work by Mozart.
Süssmayr claimed that his work (apart from the Sanctus and Agnus Dei) was entirely based on Mozart’s own sketches and plans. There is no reason to doubt this, although some claim that the movements that Süssmayr composed do not have the idiomatically Mozartian lines and that they possess flaws in musical style and grammar that are foreign to Mozart’s idiom.
The Sanctus received some criticism in terms of orchestration, and the fact that the Hosanna is a truncated fugue rather than something more fully-blown. Also, the fact that Süssmayr brought back the Hosanna fugue in a different key at the end of the Benedictus came in for criticism. However, balance this with the sublime vocal writing for the soloists in the Benedictus and the ingenious way in which he has completed the Lacrimosa—more effectively than other versions—and we see that Süssmayr did indeed do a fine job. Were it not for him, a potentially great work would have been lost, probably for ever.
Malcolm Archer, 2017