Mozart's Requiem

by Duncan Druce

That Mozart’s last composition should have been a Mass for the Dead is remarkable enough. That it was commissioned anonymously, in mysterious circumstances, and that he was working on it almost up to the day of his death, lends to the story of Mozart’s last days the air of romantic fiction. And indeed, the composer’s first biographies all embroidered the story, so that it reads like one of the supernatural tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Surrounded by legend, the Requiem soon became one of Mozart’s most admired works — along with Don Giovanni, the D minor piano concerto and The Magic Flute, it represented that side of his output that was most in tune with the burgeoning Romantic movement.

Later it was discovered that the mysterious dark stranger who appeared ‘like a ghost’ was the agent of Count Walsegg, who wished to commission a Requiem for his wife who had died earlier in 1791. The Count, a keen amateur musician, had ambitions himself as a composer, and had the habit of pretending that he had written music that was in fact by established composers of the time. There is evidence that he attempted this deception with regard to the Mozart Requiem. But Mozart’s widow, Constanze, was deceitful too; she didn’t respect Count Walsegg’s desire for exclusive rights, and within a few years it had been performed and published as Mozart’s work.

Count Walsegg was also deceived about the incomplete state of the work at Mozart’s death. Franz Xavier Suessmayr, the composer’s pupil, was responsible for finishing it. His handwriting is very similar to Mozart’s, and he and Constanze saw that the score delivered to the Count looked as homogeneous as possible.

Mozart’s own work on the score had followed his usual method. He first wrote in the essential elements, leaving the details to be filled in at a second stage. For a choral work the basics comprised the vocal parts, together with the instrumental bass-line and occasional indications of important lines for other instruments. He completed this first stage for the ‘Introitus’, ‘Kyrie’, for the ‘Sequenz’ up to bar 8 of the ‘Lacrimosa’, and for the ‘Offertium’. For the ‘Introitus’ only he went back and (more or less) completed the orchestration. There also exists a single page of sketches for the Requiem, in Mozart’s hand, for a fugal exposition to the word ‘Amen’, intended for the end of the ‘Sequenz’, after the ‘Lacrimosa’. And it is reported by Constanze that it was Mozart’s own idea that the music of the ‘Introitus’ and ‘Kyrie’ should be separated to form the last two sections (‘Lux aeterna’ and ‘Cum sanctis tuis’).

This is fairly clear, but the completed Requiem presents a more complex and uncertain picture. The Suessmayr version contains the work of other musicians — Freystaedler, another Mozart pupil, who filled in (not always accurately) the doubling instrumental parts for the Kyrie, and Josef Eybler, a more established composer, who had originally been Constanze’s first choice to finish the work. He began to orchestrate the ‘Sequenz’, but then sent the score back. Suessmayr incorporated some of his suggestions. Also, Mozart’s friend Maximilian Stadler seems to have helped Suessmayr with some of the orchestration. Where it is a question of completing Mozart’s draft, much of the work of these men is adequate, though there is little of the imaginative quality that Mozart was able to introduce to even the simplest of filling parts. But the weakest parts of the Requiem in its traditional form, not surprisingly, are those movements Suessmayr claimed to be his own work: the ‘Sanctus’, ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’. Suessmayr died in 1803. Over 20 years later, the authenticity of the Requiem was thrown into doubt. Constanze and Maximilian Stadler sprung to its defence. As well as being able to give details of the extent of Mozart’s autograph score, they also claimed that Suessmayr had been able to make use of Mozart’s sketches on scraps of paper (Zetteln or Trummer in German) as a basis for his composition of the remaining movements. At the time no sketches were known to be existent; the ‘Amen’/‘Rex tremendae’ sketch was only found in 1962.

When I was asked, by Peter Seymour and the Yorkshire Bach Choir, to make a new completion of the Requiem for performance at the 1984 York Festival, I decided, for the three Suessmayr movements, to adopt a standpoint that would be consistent with both the claims of Suessmayr and with those of Constanze and Stadler. That is to say, I imagined that Suessmayr had access to short Mozartian sketches giving the principle ideas of the three missing movements but then had to compose without any further indication of Mozart’s intentions. I could then set to work to replicate Suessmayr’s task, completing the instrumental setting and adding a new completion of the ‘Lacrimosa’, and versions of the ‘Sanctus’, ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ that are quite different from Suessmayr’s. I also completed the fugal Amen chorus to follow the ‘Lacrimosa’ — Suessmayr was either unaware of, or disregarded, this Mozart sketch.

In attempting the work of completion, I tried to base as many decisions as I could on Mozartian parallels. But this, after all, is one of Mozart’s most original, exceptional scores. Often, the most helpful standpoint to adopt was a more general one; to imagine oneself a late-eighteenth century Viennese composer with a knowledge of Mozart’s style, but not attempting to ape his musical physiognomy in every bar.

It may reasonably be asked: Why bother to make a new version of Mozart’s Requiem, when, in its familiar guise, it has been been for two hundred years one of his most admired works? Suessmayr was, after all, better placed than anyone else to know the composer’s intentions, and he had the great advantage of being an eighteenth-century composer, sharing much of Mozart’s outlook and many of his ideals. The short answer to this is that Suessmayr’s contribution to the Requiem is lacking in expertise and distinction. Above all, the ‘Osanna’ fugues, which end the ‘Sanctus’, and ‘Benedictus’, show him lacking both confidence and the necessary technical expertise for this kind of composition. As there can be no entirely satisfactory authentic version of the Mozart Requiem, it seems a good idea that we should be able to hear several different completions each of which can illuminate, from its own special standpoint, the unique quality of this masterpiece. I hope it will emerge from my version that it is, above all, a great piece of choral music. Mozart’s contrapuntal mastery enables him to recapture something of the dignity and devotional quality of earlier church music, alongside a sensibility that looks forward to the Romantic era.

Duncan Druce