There’s a seductive, chilling mystery around the story of Mozart’s Requiem
There’s a seductive, chilling mystery around the story of Mozart’s Requiem – which the Aurora Orchestra will play and which we’ll be streaming here on Monday, the climax of Kings Place’s Mozart Unwrapped season.
It’s got everything: a genuinely weird commission from a courtly intermediary who asked Mozart to write a piece for Count von Walsegg, so that the pretentious count could pass off the piece as his own composition to commemorate the death of his wife; a young composer of genius writing his first setting of the Mass for the Dead, and finding an absolutely distinctive musical voice to do so; and his tragically early death at the age of 35 after he had written around two-thirds of the work’s musical material. He died after composing eight bars of the Requiem’s Lacrimosa, the last words he set to music marking “that day of tears and mourning”.
You would think it’s more the creation of a Hollywood potboiler than reality, but it did actually happen: one of the world’s greatest composers died writing what turned out to be his own Requiem. (Playwright Peter Shaffer added a fictional gloss to the Requiem story in his Amadeus, making the commission come from a black-masked Antonio Salieri, who wants to take credit for the piece as his own, and kill Mozart along the way – as if the facts weren’t already suggestive enough.)
But the real mystery of the piece, as you’ll hear on Monday, isn’t so much the story but the music that Mozart did manage to write. A clue to how we should hear the Requiem comes from composer Michael Finnissy’s recent completion of the piece, which imagined what Mozart would do today, with another couple of centuries of musical history in his brain and his ears. (Aurora and the choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, will perform the Requiem in the completion by his pupil Franz Süssmayr that is most often performed, even if it’s still controversial.) The problem is that it’s too easy to take the Requiem for granted and not hear what Mozart was actually doing in his composition. Finnissy rightly pointed out that the apparent stylistic fusion of influences from Schubert to Bruckner, Beethoven to Busoni, in his versions of the movements Mozart didn’t write, is really an extension of a principle you hear throughout the music he did finish before the early hours of 5 December 1791.
That’s because the Requiem is already a historical palimpsest. Mozart is fusing his researches into earlier repertoire – unusually for the time, Mozart devoured all he could of the music of Handel and Bach and earlier composers towards the end of his life – with the advances he had made in his own music. In fact, there are moments of outright pilfery: Mozart knew Handel’s Messiah inside out, having made a new orchestration of the oratorio, and (as I’ve pointed out before!), if you listen to the dotted rhythms in the strings of the Requiem’s first movement, the Introitus, and the first fugue theme of the Kyrie, and compare them to consecutive movements from the Messiah (Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs, then And With His Stripes), the similarity would have today’s copyright lawyers rubbing their hands in glee.
In the Requiem’s use of arcane counterpoint, and its evocation of a strange liturgical archaism, right from the very first bar (something Mozart achieves through a paradoxically new-fangled combination of orchestral colours – trombones, basset horns, a continuo section of organ and low strings as well as a more conventional 18th century orchestral lineup), Mozart turns his Requiem into a reflection and intensification of earlier models of musical grief.
But the music he did leave us with has something else, too. All right, maybe the reality and myths around his death play a part in this, but the music of the Requiem is uniquely heartbreaking. For me, it’s not the fire and brimstone of the Dies Irae or even the revelatory terror of the Almighty in Mozart’s choral writing for the Rex Tremendae movement, the “King of Majesty”, that’s most affecting, but the quartet for the four soloists, the Recordare.
Coming in between the austere choral pillars of the Rex Tremendae and the Confutatis, the intimacy and tenderness of the Recordare is devastating in its beauty, the Requiem’s only vision of a world not wracked by pain or lament. It can’t last, of course, but it’s precisely because it’s a fleeting glimpse of serenity that the Recordare is so shockingly moving. It’s possible to understand what Mozart is doing in the Requiem with his historical musical models, and it’s even possible to prise apart the myths from the realities of what actually happened at the end of 1791, but there’s an endlessly fascinating enigma in the astonishing music Mozart did manage to compose. Enjoy it all – whether it’s your hundredth Requiem or your first – live here on Monday.
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