To this day mystery surrounds the circumstances under which Mozart was commissioned by a stranger to write a Requiem Mass. He died before its completion, only adding to the air of foreboding that the work so effectively evokes and reminding us of the fragility of our mortality.
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In the summer of 1791, while working on The Magic Flute, Mozart received a peculiar visit. A stranger of distinguished aspect presented himself one day at the door and, refusing to identify himself, requested a Requiem. All he would reveal was that it was wanted by a gentleman whose wife had recently died, and who wished to honour her memory every year on the anniversary of her death. Somewhat taken aback by this mysterious commission, Mozart accepted its terms and a down payment; but the strange circumstances began to prey on his mind and, already exhausted by the illness that was soon to kill him, he conceived of the stranger as some emissary from beyond the grave and the Requiem as one for himself.
In a state of some distress, both physically and financially, he began work on the Requiem; but he had to interrupt himself in the middle of the ‘Rex tremendae’ in order to complete the opera La clemenza di Tito, and to prepare for its first performance and that of The Magic Flute. By the time he resumed work on the Requiem in October, he was seriously ill. He seems to have completed the scoring of the opening movements, and a rough score as far as the ‘Confutatis’; two other movements, the ‘Domine Jesu’ and the ‘Hostias’ were written separately. He had begun the ‘Lacrimosa’ when exhaustion finally overtook him. On 4 December at two o’clock some friends gathered round his bed to sing through what he had written, with him taking the alto part (he had always preferred playing the viola to the violin in quartets). As they began the ‘Lacrimosa’, Mozart himself began to weep, and laid the score aside. A few hours later his sister-in-law Sophie came in to find his pupil Franz Süssmayer at his side listening to instructions as to how the work should be finished, for Mozart himself no longer expected to be able to do this. His last act before his death the following morning was to mouth the sound of the timpani he wanted at a certain point in the Requiem.
The mystery of the stranger at the door was easily explained a little later. He was in fact the emissary of a certain Count Walsegg-Stuppach, an amateur composer with a fondness for mystification and also for passing works off as his own. This was normally more as practical joking than serious intent to deceive, though when he received the Requiem commissioned from Mozart he did copy it out in his own hand and superscribe it ‘Requiem composto dal Conte Walsegg’. No one was deceived, for by now the Requiem had received its first performance under Mozart’s name.
Larger mysteries remain than the Count’s fairly harmless confusions. Mozart’s widow Constanze was not able to return the commissioning fee, as would have possibly been required; so she turned first to Joseph Eybler with the request to finish the work. He signed a document agreeing, but never got further than the full instrumentation up to the ‘Confutatis’. Eventually Süssmayer took the work up, with something of the plodding good nature that had made him the friend of the Mozarts and the object of their humour. He did his honourable best, though how far this went remains uncertain. The unevenness of the music could suggest that Süssmayer was privy to Mozart’s wishes (as seems more than likely) but lacked the talent to execute these ideas more than perfunctorily, perhaps from some now lost sketches: though Mozart did not normally make sketches, some ideas may have been scribbled down under these exceptional circumstances. Süssmayer declared that Mozart had written the voice parts and the main instrumental parts up to the eighth bar of the ‘Lacrimosa’, as well as the ‘Domine Jesu’ and no doubt the ‘Hostias’; the ‘Lux Aeterna’ and the ‘Cum sanctis tuis’ were based on the music of the ‘Requiem’ and ‘Kyrie’; the ‘Sanctus’, ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ were Süssmayer’s original work.
Doubts have been cast on Süssmayer’s truthfulness in this, not least because of the obvious contrast between the poorer parts of the ‘Benedictus’ and the striking originality of the ‘Agnus Dei’. However, he seems to have been an honourable and loyal man, devoted to Mozart and as anxious as Constanze to establish that as much of the Requiem as possible was Mozart’s rather than his own, while not, like her, ever attempting to suggest that it was all by Mozart. Why he was initially passed over in favour of Eybler is another mystery. He has earned some scorn for the poverty of his work; but which composer would offer to stand next to Mozart? He deserves, rather, the gratitude of history for having had the courage to do what he felt he could probably do better than others with less access to Mozart’s methods. As a result of his work, a masterpiece, left in torso, was made more performable; and no one could regret that.
John Warrack © 2007