Bring up a discussion of Mozart and someone is bound to start humming Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or cite an internet article on the benefits of Mozart and intelligence, or even the ability of Mozart's music to raise IQ scores, especially if listening begins in utero! And ask most people how Mozart died, and you’ll likely get a tale of a genius and prodigy, one about a womanizing starving artist with an annoying laugh who was often vulgar and childish—a man who in the end, spiraled into obsession and died young, poisoned by his rival and arch nemesis Salieri while composing a requiem mass for a secret commissioner.
While there are elements of truth, much of this tale is gleaned from Peter Shaffer’s 1984 stage-play-to-blockbuster-hit, Amadeus. Shaffer’s fictionalized and largely romanticized account of Mozart’s life was itself inspired by a short drama written all the way back in 1830 by Alexander Pushkin, which in turn became the libretto for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1897 opera, Mozart and Salieri. So you see, the stories and urban legends about Mozart aren’t anything new.
A good story is ample fodder, and there is always something significant about last words. Mozart’s Requiem was his final musical sentiment to the world, and that, perhaps more than anything else, is why this piece holds such a place in the composers’ popular legacy.
In actuality, Mozart’s Requiem, exists only as fragments; its completion attended to posthumously by many others. Mozart began work on the Requiem in October of 1791, fell ill in November, and died on December 5th. The only movement Mozart entirely finished before he died was the opening Requiem Aeternam. Other movements are mostly there: for the Kyrie, most of the Sequencia, and the Offertorium, Mozart wrote out music for the four voices along with key melodic and structural parts for the winds and strings. But in the Lacrimosa, Mozart only completed the first eight bars, and as far as we can tell, no material in Mozart's hand for the rest of the piece survives.
Mozart’s widow Constanze took up the task of having the Requiem finished. Maybe it was a question of pride, or a chance to honor her husband’s work,or more likely, it was a matter of earning the rest of the commission—one way or another, Constanze enlisted the help of several of Mozart’s students and a friend to finish it. Freystädtler added string parts to the Kyrie, Stadler added string parts to the Domine Jesu Christe, Eybler worked out much of the missing instrumentation up to the Lacrimosa, but it was Franz Xaver Süssmayr who did the most—filling in and reworking his colleague's preceding work, completing the Lacrimosa, and in all likelihood, composing the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio largely from scratch. For this task, Süssmayr may have had the help of oral instructions from Mozart or possibly sketches that are now lost.
Entrusted with a monumental task, what Süssmayr came up with is passable. (You can hear Süssmayr's version, by the way, on a 1995 recording from William Christie and Les Art Florrisants.) But musicologists, audiences, and performers haven’t been entirely satisfied with Süssmayr’s work, finding it lacking in some places, weak in key moments and unconvincing in others. Given that, many have offered their own solutions.
In the 1970’s, German violist and musicologist Franz Beyer re-instrumented the Süssmayr version. The 1989 Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein is this Franz Beyer version, and the first recording of Mozart’s Requiem I ever owned and loved!
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, too, has championed the Beyer edition. But did you know that many others, among them Richard Maunder and Robbins Landon, have also made their own adaptations of the Requiem score? Landon, for his part, favors Eybler’s ideas for instrumentation over Süssmayr ’s. Still others, like Robert Levin, have set Süssmayr ’s additions largely aside, re-orchestrating with their own ideas a la Mozart.
Robert Levin's Edition
Levin’s Requiem a la Mozart came out in 1991, and it’s a version that in the two decades past, has been recorded numerous times. The 2013 United Classics recording conducted by Ralf Otto and featured on today’s podcast, is one such recording.
What must it be like to try to get inside the compositional mind of Mozart, one of the most enduringly famous composers in history? In keeping with the performance tradition of this piece, we can look forward to new scholarship and imaginings with intrigue and interest.