Guest, George

Performance DetailsRelease DetailsRelease Notes
Soprano: Yvonne Kenny
Mezzo-Soprano: Sarah Walker
Tenor: William Kendall
Bass-Baritone: David Wilson-Johnson

Choir: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Orchestra: English Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: George Guest

Date: July 27-28,1987
Venue: Chapel of St Johns College, Cambridge, UK

Label: Chandos
Cat No.: CHAN 7059
Released: 1997
Mozart was not obsessed with the idea of his death (unlike Schubert and many of the romantics who followed him) but as with many in a time less healthy and more religious than our own, it was nevertheless part of his daily consciousness. On 4 April 1787, four years prior to the composition of the Requiem and his own death at the age of thirty-five, he wrote thus to his father:

Since death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me but actually soothing and consoling. I thank God for allowing me to understand that the fact of death is the key, which unlocks the door to true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that, young as I am, I may not live to see another day. Yet not one among my acquaintances could say that I am disgruntled or morose, and for this blessing I thank my Creator daily, and wish with all my heart that all my fellow creatures could enjoy the same.

This enviable serenity is hardly the first thing that strikes us when we hear the Requiem. From the outset, with its scoring for bassethorns, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, trombone and strings, we are confronted with a far more sombre outlook. Nor should we be surprised. By the time Mozart received the commission for the work, his health was precarious, to say the least, and his finances more precarious still; indeed, as the pathetic, begging letters to his friend Puchberg make all too plain, the composer was desperate. Few great works have been surrounded by the mystery and speculation which attends the Requiem. Set in Mozart’s personal, ‘tragic’ key of D minor, it was a remarkable work before a note of it was written. Music lovers and readers the world over are familiar with the haunting account of its commission in Otto Jahn’s biography:

A stranger, tall, thin, grave-looking, dressed from head to foot in grey and calculated from his very appearance to make a striking and weird impression, presented Mozart with an anonymous letter begging him… to name his price for the composition of a Requiem and the shortest time in which he could undertake to complete it.

Mozart, we learn, became convinced that the spectral caller was an emissary from the afterlife, come to summon him away. The Requiem was to be his own. With a start like that, and the turn of events which followed, it is hardly surprising that the piece soon became entangled in a web of romance: suggestions that it was bound up with a plot against Mozart’s life still refuse to lie down. The story of the mysterious grey-clad stranger, though, while certainly unforgettable, is based on a letter since exposed as a forgery. Nevertheless, while the truth of the matter, now generally accepted as established, is less sinister, it is hardly less bizarre. There was a certain Count Franz von Walsegg, who (though otherwise unremarkable) was in the habit of commissioning works from established composers, then having them performed at his castle in the Austrian town of Stuppach while asking his audience to guess the composer of each one. As it happens, work on the Requiem was interrupted by work on two masterpieces which could hardly be more different, La clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute. When Mozart returned to the Mass he was effectively on his death bed. He departed this life on 5 December 1791 with his final work uncompleted. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave and his remains have never been discovered. Faced with financial ruination, his widow Constanze sought desperately to have the work completed by someone else. The unenviable job fell to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil and friend (of the much-maligned Salieri as well), with whom Mozart discussed the progress of the Requiem in his final days and who had the convenient ability to duplicate Mozart’s musical handwriting. The task facing him was enormous: of the work’s eleven movements, only the Introit and Kyrie are mostly Mozart. Of the next eight sections, the vocal parts are Mozart’s but the orchestration is mostly Süssmayr’s, following a few sparse indications of scoring in the composer’s sketches (though the striking use of the trombone in the Tuba mirum is emphatically Mozart’s own). The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, as far as we can tell, are almost pure Süssmayr. For the Lux aeterna and the final ‘cum sanctis tuis’ (following both traditional and earlier Mozartian practice) he repeated the music of the opening, ending with a repeat of the great double fugue. A postscript: Süssmayr’s remarkable salvage job (complete with convincing Mozartian handwriting) was duly delivered to the pathetic Count, whose late wife was eventually (if spuriously) honoured as planned, in December 1793.
© Jeremy Siepmann