Mezzo-Soprano: Gloria Banditelli
Tenor: Mirko Guadagnini
Bass: Sergio Foresti
Choir: Coro Canticum Novum
Orchestra: Accademia Hermans
Conductor: Fabio Ciofini
Date: July 6-8, 2010
Venue: Chiesa di San Bartolomeo di Solomeo, Umbria, Italy
Cat No.: Discantica 236
“The commission to compose a requiem mass was certainly a common occurrence for a composer living in 1791. But if the composer in question is Mozart, and if the client (moreover willing to pay a not insignificant fee without qualms) remains secret, if he uses a ‘messenger’, if after the order an illness occurs, if the illness becomes mortal; if, consequently, this becomes the composer’s last work; and if he is not able to complete it before his death, which medical knowledge of that time could not explain, then such a commission becomes imbued with sinister meanings which could, and in fact did, set off, a proliferation of legends which still colour this Requiem – with their light or with their shadows.1 I shall borrow this effective “if” chain from the Italian edition of one of the most authoritative studies on Mozart’s last work, to introduce a journey which – could not be otherwise in this instance – is, in short, put forward as a simple starting point for a re-reading of one of the most loved and performed works in music history. Nonetheless – we should add – there have been a few obstinate misunderstandings, based on obscure historical deception, transformed into literature by Pushkin (or the film by Forman, if you prefer). Here is the journey: from myth to art, through historical truth, in the form of a very classical sonata form.
Exposition: the myth
This began immediately, within Mozart’s own artistic circle. It started off with an “unknown messenger” (unbekannt), apparently “dressed in grey” who delivered an “unsigned” letter, in which a client who wished to remain anonymous requested the writing of a Requiem. From the start there is also a premonition of the final outcome in that “Requiem which he composed for himself”, and of a tragic ending (“I have a very strong feeling – he continued – that I don’t have much time left: they’ve poisoned me! I’m sure of it!”2). There are also the clever results of approximately twenty years of inventiveness: a (false) letter written by Mozart himself to Lorenzo Da Ponte3, dated 7 September 1791, where he confesses the details of the mysterious commission and the sinister premonitions about his death. In summary, such documents tend to corroborate, among contemporaries, the authenticity of the score and its function as a “spiritual legacy”. However, and above all, there was Constanze’s intervention: her careful, admirable and intricate weaving of threads of mystery.
Development: the (true) story
Constanze’s main interests were to pass off as an authentic autograph score, one which was only partially so, enshrouding it in mystery. But let us look at the facts. Between August and December 1791 Mozart worked on the Requiem, probably putting off the composition till mid-August to go to Prague for a performance of La Clemenza di Tito, and starting again at the end of November. The commission, delivered by a messenger (Leitgeb, or more probably Puchberg, both Freemasons and anything but “unbekannt” to Mozart) arrived on behalf of Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach who having lost his very young wife on 14 February, wanted to dedicate a requiem mass to her memory, which he would pass off as his own: a stratagem the count often used, as was well-known in Vienna4. Walsegg was ready to pay 50 ducats (almost the amount Mozart received for his The Marriage of Figaro). It was a sum which was certainly enticing to a composer who was constantly in financial difficulty, but was perhaps not enough to overcome the difficulties which such a commission would entail. Why – at that point – did Mozart make a problem out of whose Requiem – having to cede the authorship to others – he would compose5? Perhaps there has not been enough reflection on this fact, and therefore we refer to the insight of Piero Buscaroli6, who sustains that, long before dying with his pen in his hand7, Mozart “amused himself” in various ways ( the Clarinet Concerto, for example); yet he did not complete it, and, in reality, he did not want to. Furthermore: it would have been very difficult for Mozart to lower himself to Walsegg’s level, at least as difficult as it would have been for Walsegg to rise to Mozart’s. As for the terms of the commission, it is plausible to see them as the greatest humiliation of his career, even more than the kick by Count d’Arco. This was certainly too humiliating for Mozart to tell Constanze, who, far from “following his every step”8, was perhaps actually in the dark about the whole occurrence. The fact remains that, after his death on 5 December (and myths proliferate about this episode as well9), “Mozart’s” Requiem was performed on 2 January 1793 at a soirée organized by the Baron van Swieten for Constanze and her children ( Wien, Jahn-Saal). “Walsegg’s” was performed for the first time on 14 December of the same year, in the Neuklosterkirche in Wiener Neustadt, conducted by the client and “composer”, to whom the score was given by Mozart’s widow as a completed work. And so it was, if one omits the small detail that the “completion” of the Requiem was a result of the collaboration of a workshop of Mozart’s closest students: Franz Jakob Freystädtler, Maximilian Stadler, Joseph Eybler and, above all, Franz Xaver Süßmayr. To the latter we owe the work which, in most cases, we still hear today10. The sections regarded as Mozart’s own have been, in time, reduced to the Introitus, the vocal parts, the bass and a few instrumental entrances in the Kyrie, Sequenza and Offertorium11, which illustrates that there was increasingly more intervention during the course of the incomplete score12. These interventions were in reality quickly disclosed. In 1793 there was the Schlichtegroll13 incident, where Constanze again tried to put forward her version of what happened. Finally, in 1800, Süßmayr wrote a letter declaring – with perhaps some unexpected pride – his own role in the composition of the Requiem14.
Recapitulation: art ( a return to the myth?)
Once the facts of the story have been ascertained, art returns to the plot. So, just when the mystery of the Requiem appears to be abating15, Alexander Pushkin clouds the issue once again. His means are literature: the “short tragedy” Mozart and Salieri, originally called Envy, was published in 1832. Here not only does the Requiem return to being the motor of imaginary transpositions, but a further detail: the involvement of Anotnio Salieri in the death of Mozart, is added to the drama, superimposing mythology on mythology. It is without a doubt that Salieri did not murder Mozart – and that moreover, Mozart was not killed16. But the fact remains that after being sullied by the “literary” homicide from the pages of the great Russian writer (and in the pretty little opera Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov drew from it in 1898), the composer from Legnago stands out as the negative alter ego of the genius from Salzburg (no longer an assassin, but blindly consumed by envy: a case of indefatigable dedication to one’s art versus pure and undeserved talent). This reappears in the two major “consequences” of the “short tragedy”: the theatrical work Amadeus by Peter Shaffer17 and the film of the same name by Miloš Forman18. Again, contrary to any historical logic, the image of the messenger dressed in grey returns, the perfectly unsullied mystery of the anonymous client and the score which romantically consumed Mozart: that gloomy foreboding of death to which Forman’s Mozart could only resound his mocking laughter.
In short, we return to the point of departure, as in perfect sonata form.