Mozart Requiem: The Final Testament

A retrospective...


May, 2017 at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Seattle and Rialto Theater, Tacoma

Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (1791)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr

The Seattle Choral Company joined the players of the Northwest Sinfonietta and their conductor Eric Jacobsen for Mozart’s final masterpiece. TheNew York Times hailed conductor Jacobsen as “an interpretive dynamo.” Concerts in both Seattle and Tacoma.The choir was joined by guest soloists: Megan Chenovick, soprano; Nerys Jones, mezzo-soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; Charles Robert Stephens, baritone.

No work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as shrouded in legend and enigma as the Requiem — and for good reason. Many of the circumstances surrounding Mozart’s final composition have a decidedly surreal quality. In the early summer of 1791, Mozart received a visit at his Vienna home from “an unknown messenger.” This individual, acting on behalf of another who wished to remain anonymous, requested Mozart to compose a Requiem Mass. Although terminally ill, Mozart began the project but died before its completion. The Mass would be finished later by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.


According to Mozart’s early biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, the messenger who delivered the commission cautioned the composer not to try “to find out who had given the order, as it would assuredly be in vain.” A few months later, Mozart received another visit from the messenger, who “appeared like ghost,” and inquired about the status of the commission.

As Mozart’s physical condition deteriorated, he desperately attempted to complete the Requiem. In fact, Mozart continued to work on the Requiem until almost the very moment of his death. The horrible irony of the situation was not lost upon the composer. On more than one occasion, Mozart remarked that he was writing his own Requiem. When Mozart died, just a few minutes before 1 a.m. on December 5, 1791, the Requiem was unfinished. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 35 years old.

Over time, much of the Requiem’s mystery has been replaced by fact. For example, we now know that the “unknown messenger” was representing Count Franz Walsegg, a nobleman who resided in Lower Austria.

Count Walsegg was an amateur musician who played both the flute and cello. One of the Count’s hobbies was to commission, anonymously, works by various prominent composers. Walsegg would then copy the works in his own hand and present them at his biweekly musical soirées. The Count invited his guests to try to ascertain the identity of the composer. As one of the Count’s friends recalled: “We had to guess the composer. Usually we guessed the count himself…; he would smile at that and be pleased that he had (or so he believed) succeeded in mystifying us; but we laughed because he thought us so credulous.”

The Count’s wife died on February 14, 1791. It is quite possible that Walsegg commissioned the Requiem from Mozart with the intention of presenting it on the first anniversary of her passing.

The image of Mozart — deathly ill, and racing against time to complete the Requiem — certainly makes for a compelling story. In the case of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), it even makes for compelling theater. But in truth, during a considerable portion of the time Mozart was involved in the creation of the Requiem, he was in reasonably good health and spirits.

“It is for myself I am writing this”

The summer and autumn of 1791 represented an extraordinary period of activity for Mozart. In June or July, Mozart began composition of the Requiem. However, Mozart was forced to suspend work on the piece in order to travel to Prague for the premiere of La clemenza di Tito, an opera he had composed in less than a month’s time. After the premiere of Tito on September 6, 1791, Mozart returned to Vienna and completed his comic opera, Die Zauberflöte, which had its first performance on September 30.

At the time of the premiere of Die Zauberflöte, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, was in Baden, taking the curative waters. Mozart’s letters to her, written at the start of October, reflect the composer’s generally buoyant attitude. For example, on October 7, Mozart, referring to himself in both the first and third person, wrote:

Immediately after your departure I played two games of billiards with Herr von Mozart, the fellow who wrote the opera that is running at Schikaneder’s theater; then I sold my nag for fourteen ducats; then I told Joseph to get Primus to fetch me some black coffee, with which I smoked a splendid pipe of tobacco; and then I orchestrated almost the whole of Stadler’s rondo (i.e., the finale of Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622, yet another work he completed in 1791).

During this heady period, Mozart was again at work on the Requiem. However, by the middle or end of October, he began to feel ill. Mozart was convinced that he had been poisoned. He told Constanze: “I know I must die … someone has given me acqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death — for which they have ordered a Requiem, it is for myself I am writing this.” Constanze, fearful that the Requiem was the cause of her husband’s morbid thoughts, convinced him to put the work aside.

A few weeks later, Mozart told Constanze: “Yes I see I was ill to have had such an absurd idea of having taken poison, give me back the Requiem and I will go on with it.” But on November 20, Mozart became stricken with the illness (perhaps, rheumatic fever) that would kill him in a few weeks’ time.

Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem. On the eve of his death, Mozart sang the music with his friends, Benedict Schack, Franz Xaver Gerl (the first Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte) and Josepha Weber Hofer. However, when the group arrived at the Lacrimosa (“On this day full of weeping”), Mozart “began to weep violently and the score was laid aside.”

Mozart died on December 5, 1791, leaving the score uncompleted.

The original copy of the score for Dies irae in the manuscript with orchestration added by Eybler . Top right, the note reads: "Everything that is not fenced in pen out of the hand of Mozart to page 32." 

Read the text of the Mozart Requiem...