Mozart’s Requiem remains a work shrouded in mystery, and with the artistic nature of the music itself, the mass acquires a position among the ranks of the most-beloved works of music of all time, for it is the most performed choral piece to date.
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 as if it were meant for his own memorial service and became wholly fixated upon it. 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 own 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 for the piece. Mozart only fully completed the Requiem and Kyrie and the majority of the vocal parts and figured bass.
Süssmayr completed the instrumentation from Mozart’s skeleton sketches and independently composed the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and the end of the Lacrimosa. Later editors of course edited Süssmayr’s instrumentations and some of his voice-leading, but for the most part, it is believed that the Requiem is Mozart’s final and greatest work.
Though Süssmayr never could have matched Mozart’s level of genius, his edition still rules the majority of performances of this master work.
Much of the music itself displays Mozart’s respect for the composers who lived before him and influenced his definition of music. For instance, in his Requiem, Mozart quotes other Requiem Masses by Glassmann, Gossec, and Michael Haydn. Further than that, he quotes portions of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Christmas Oratorio, and Magnificat, as well as some works by other members of the Bach family. The Baroque influence is evident in some of the double-fugue figures in the Kyrieand the Agnus Dei, which grants the entire Requiem a refreshing tone as well as historical significance.
In contrast, the Dies Irae’s homophonic texture and harmonic structure represent a precursor to Romantic music while retaining the sense of doom inherent in a “Day of Wrath.” The prominent use of tuba with quartet in the Tuba Mirum adds a noble and court-like sensibility to the work and adds to the list of styles with which Mozart was familiar.
The Rex Tremendae expresses regality in a more refined and stately sense with the repeated and slow reiteration of “Rex” (“King”) and the dotted rhythms that compose the entire movement. Beautifully transitioning into the quartet of the Recordare, Mozart retains the tone of ritual and tradition amidst the sea of Hell-fires and tears for which the Requiem Mass is known. Mozart brilliantly realized the contrast of the condemning tone regarding “flames of woe” with the gentle and heartbroken pleas for help by the upper voices throughout the Confutatis.
Leading into the Lacrimosa, which quite possibly speaks of Mozart’s own “tearful day” in singing with his closest family and friends, he creates a duo of heart-wrenching music that describes the most profound sense of need for a God to save the souls of the dead. The Domine Jesu marks a shift back to a more contrapuntal sense of music in order to unify the mass before closing. The “quam olim Abrahae” figure appears both in the Domine Jesu and the Hostias, and the “Osanna” figure appears both in the Sanctus and the Benedictus, which displays the use of familiar ideas to tie together separate movements.
Mozart continues the use of new material mixed with old material in the last movement, the Agnus Dei, by placing the concluding text of the traditional Requiem Mass with the double-fugue musical figure from the Kyrie in the beginning. In doing so, he grants unity to the piece and a firm sense of conclusion to the listener.
Through an exploration of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the creation and completion of Mozart’s Requiem and an analysis of the music itself, the beauty of the Requiem reveals itself, and it is understandable why this piece, of all the great pieces by the master composer, remains one of the most celebrated and beloved choral works of all generations.
There exists prolific meaning in every quotation from other works as well as in every musical decision Mozart executes in his pursuit to fully express the ideas inherent in the traditional Requiem Mass. Mozart does more than merely reiterate the traditional text of the mass and creates a piece that remains an inspiration to all who realize its profundity.
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, on Mozart’s Requiem. 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.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
- Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020)
- Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016)
- where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.