Mozart’s memory is full of opposites. Known for both jumping on tables and meowing like a cat and for the mysterious inception of his final work, the Requiem, his work can be taken as both arrogant and irreverent or as profound and hauntingly beautiful. Yet, neither can portray the deepest essence of his being.
Born 1756 in Salzburg, a city in what’s now Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began his short but influential life. It’s well known that he was a clavier virtuoso by the age of six (with organ and violin skills as well). But he’s remembered more for his composition, which he also started when he was young.
He wrote his first minuets by age six, first symphony by nine, first oratorio by eleven, and first opera by twelve.
What a busy childhood!
In addition to all that work, he traveled widely with his father, who was also his teacher. Under his father’s tutelage, Mozart came to appreciate all forms of music in the west. This contributed to his wide range of composition, spanning keyboard, symphonic, and oratorio in his more than 600 works.
But one work stands apart from the rest.
In July of 1971, a mysterious masked stranger appeared to request the commission of a Requiem Mass of the young but sick Mozart. Later, it was discovered to be a messenger of the Count von Walsegg, who frequently commissioned pieces of famous composers and credited them to himself. In this case, he asked a master to write a Requiem Mass for his young, dead wife Anna.
Believing the request to be from a world beyond the physical, Mozart feverishly set to work on the Requiem and fixated upon it as if it were meant for his own memorial service. Indeed it became his death. Legend says that the night before his death, Mozart summoned his closest friends and family to his bedside to sing the completed portion of the Lacrymosa in order to bid them farewell.
On the Fifth of December, 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart departed from this world, and five days later, the completed portions of the Requiem were performed at his memorial service.
After asking colleagues of Mozart who all declined, Mozart’s widow Constanze hired Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil and dear friend, to complete the Requiem for the Count. Luckily, Mozart had played through and discussed plans for the work with Süssmayr before his death, so the Requiem was arguably completed according to Mozart’s deepest wishes.
The most performed choral work in all of history, the Requiem is famous not for the mystery of its inception but for the eloquence and passion hidden within its score. It references Mozart’s heroes and builds upon them to create the new music for which he was so influential. In fact, the double fugue contains a subject used by Bach, Handel, and Haydn. And the work as a whole sounds like an extension of Handel’s work.
But the Recordare is pure Mozart, the work of a German composer who understood and loved the musical tradition of Italy and interpreted it in his own perfect way.
Grout and Palisca. From A History of Western Music, 4th Ed.
No matter the tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is a beautiful work that has influenced all forms of media. The Dies Irae provides the soundtrack for many a movie’s judgment scene, and the Lacrymosa finds its way into commercials that depict unfortunate circumstances.
The Requiem’s wide influence shows the pure side of Mozart’s music. It haunts many a musician, just as it haunted its composer.
Although Mozart was quite the jokester, he also struggled with the same things that make us all human. And from this came his music. So as we musicians continue to perform today, let us learn from Mozart and try to be as pure in our attempts as he was. But also not forget to enjoy the effort.