About the Work


The traditional version of Mozart’s Requiem, as handed to Count Franz von Walsegg early in 1792 in fulfilment of a commission accepted the previous summer, has been the subject of intense musicological and analytical discussion. This has centred on the authorship of sections of the Requiem which Mozart clearly did not complete himself, and where the contribution of Franz Xaver Süssmayr figures, more or less. Critics of Süssmayr’s role in the completion have gone so far as to propose alternative solutions (in the last fifty years: Beyer, Landon, Maunder, Druce and Levin). In the present recording, the traditional Süssmayr completion has been used for reasons that are nowhere better expressed than in the following summary by Christoph Wolff (p. 81):

. . . the Süssmayr score deserves to be protected as the only contemporary historical, philological, and musical document of those Requiem portions which Mozart was unable to include in his draft score. To the listener, the Süssmayr score reveals an aesthetic dimension as well, because it is the only document that represents the genuine musical truth of the unfinished work. In fact, its rough juxtaposition and open intermingling of perfection and imperfection draws us directly into the realm and atmosphere of the inner Mozart circle trying to cope with an overwhelming legacy.

The following notes take the reader through the story of the composition of the Requiem, and make a case for the virtues of the traditional version in which Süssmayr became Mozart’s principal collaborator.

The circumstances of the composition of the Requiem are less extraordinary than they are sometimes made out to be. Niemetschek touches on them in his chronicle of Mozart’s life, published in 1798, just seven years after the composer’s death. He relied on first‐witness accounts, including that of Mozart’s widow, Contanze. We read:

Shortly before the coronation of emperor Leopold [August 1791], even before Mozart had received the order to travel to Prague [where the imperial commissioned La Clemenza di Tito would be performed as part of the celebrations], a letter without signature was brought to him by an unknown messenger, which with many flattering remarks contained an enquiry as to whether he would be willing to undertake to write a Requiem Mass. What would be the cost, and how long would it take to complete?

Mozart, who never made the least move without his wife’s knowledge, told her of this remarkable request, and at the same time expressed a wish to try his hand at this type of composition, the more so as the higher forms of church music had always appealed to his genius. She advised him to accept the offer. He therefore replied to his anonymous patron that he would write a Requiem for a given sum; he could not state exactly how long it would take. He wished, however, to know where the work was to be delivered when ready. In a short while the same messenger appeared again, bringing back not only the sum stipulated but also the promise, as Mozart had been so modest in his price, that he would receive another payment on receipt of the composition. He should, moreover, write according to his own ideas and mood, but should not trouble to find out who had given the order, as it would
assuredly be in vain.

This account mirrors an earlier report published in the Salzburger Intelligenzblatt of 7 January 1792 (see Landon (1988), p.160). The identity of the mysterious commissioner comes to light in a later document written in 1839 by Anton Herzog (but brought into the public domain by Otto Deutsch only in 1964). Herzog’s testimony is entirely credible, since as a young man he had been in the employ of the very person who ‘had given the order’ for the commission, Count von Walsegg.

On 14 February 1791, death snatched from Herr Count von Walsegg his beloved wife, in the flower of her life. He wanted to erect a double memorial to her, and he had an excellent idea. He arranged . . . that one of the very best sculptors in Vienna should model an epitaph; and Mozart should compose a Requiem, for which he [the Count] as usual reserved the sole right of possession.

. . . the Requiem, which was supposed to be played every year on the anniversary of Madame Countess’s death, took longer than expected; for death surprised Mozart in the midst of this worthy task. What to do now? Who was going to dare imitate a Mozart? And yet the work had to be finished; for Mozart’s widow, who (as was well known) was not in the best circumstances, was to have received one hundred ducats.

. . . Finally Süssmayr was persuaded to complete the unfinished great work, and he admits . . . that during Mozart’s lifetime he often played and sang through with him the pieces that had already been composed, namely ‘Requiem’, ‘Kyrie’, ‘Dies irae’, ‘Domine’, and so forth, and that he [Mozart] very often discussed the completion of this work and communicated [to Süssmayr] the way and the reasons of his orchestration. . . .

After Herr Count Walsegg had received the score of the Requiem, he copied the whole at once, in his usual fashion, note for note in his own very fair hand; and gave it movement by movement to his violinist Benaro, so he could copy the parts.

When all the individual parts were written out, preparations for performing the Requiem were at once set in motion. But because in the region of Stuppach [the location of Walsegg’s estate] not all the necessary musicians could be brought together, it was arranged that the first performance take place in Wiener Neustadt. Among the musicians, the choice of the instrumental and vocal soloists was made from among the best available; and so it happened that the soprano was sung by Ferenz [a boy?] from Neustadt, the contralto by Kernbeiss from Schottwien, the tenor by Klein of Neustadt, and the bass by Thuner of Gloggnitz ‐ these were the soloists. On 12 December 1793 the general rehearsal was held in the evening, in the choirloft of the Cistercian Abbey and Parish Church of Neustadt; and on 14 December at 10 o’clock in the morning a requiem memorial service was held in that same church, during which this famous Requiem was given for the first time in the fashion for which it was intended.

The threads remaining to be teased out of these accounts are: Mozart’s state of mind as he embarked on this his last (and unfinished) composition, the role of Süssmayr (and others) in the completion of the Requiem, and the standing of the work in the Mozart canon. On the first matter, Nissen, Constanze’s second husband, wrote:

After Mozart’s return from Prague [October 1791], he began at once to work on the Requiem and travailed with exceptional diligence and lively interest; but his illness continued and depressed him. With deep sorrow his wife saw his health gradually deteriorating. When, on a fine autumn day [in late October], she drove with him to the Prater to distract him, and the two were sitting alone, Mozart began to speak of death; he maintained that he was writing the Requiem for himself. As he said this, the tears came to his eyes, and when she attempted to talk him out of those black thoughts, he answered: ’No, no, I feel it too strongly, I won’t last much longer: surely I have been poisoned! I can’t free myself of these thoughts.’
. . .
On the day he died, he had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed. ‘Didn’t I say before that I was writing this Requiem for myself? Thus he spoke and looked over the whole attentively, with tears in his eyes. It was the last painful farewell to his beloved Art.

It is not thought today that Mozart was poisoned (Salieri, though a rival, was not a murderer). But towards the end of October 1791, Mozart had complained of ‘a great languor oppressing him by degrees’ (information recorded by Vincent Novello in July 1829 after a conversation with Constanze); by late November he was bedridden; and early on the morning of 5 December he died. The contemporary record of the cause of death was inflammatory rheumatic fever, an illness Mozart had suffered more than once during his infancy and childhood. Mozart had so much to live for that his frustration at falling terminally ill at this point in his career was intolerable. He had recently been offered the post of Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, he had commissions promised from the Vienna and Prague theatres, and his perilous financial circumstances were within sight of ending. He struggled with his own death far less serenely than with his mother’s in 1778, which he had accepted as part of divine providence.

As for who really wrote the Requiem, there is no doubt that it is largely the work of Mozart, though only some sections are in his hand. Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766‐1803) is the principal secondary actor. Sophie Haibel (Constanze’s sister) confirms Nissen’s account that Süssmayr received instructions from Mozart:

. . . Süssmayr was at Mozart’s bedside. The well‐known Requiem lay on the quilt and Mozart was explaining to him how, in his opinion, he ought to finish it, when he was gone . . . His last movement was an attempt to express with his mouth the drum passages in the Requiem.

Vincent Novello also records these events following his conversations with Constanze in 1829:

A short time before his death [Mozart] sang with Madame [Constanze] and Süssmayr the Requiem. Several of the movements oppressed him to tears. He wrote the Recordare and principal parts first, saying, ‘If I do not live these are of the most consequence.’ When they had finished he called Süssmayr to him and desired that if he died before he had completed the work, the fugue he had written at the commencement [Kyrie] might be repeated and pointed out where and how other parts should be filled up that were already sketched. It was in consequence of this, that Süssmayr afterwards wrote to Breitkopf of Leipzig that he had written the principal part of this Requiem, but as Madame justly observed, anyone could have written what he had done, after the sketching and precise directions of Mozart, and nothing Süssmayr ever did, before or after, proved him to have any talent of a similar kind.

Of course, Constanze had to ensure that the commission was completed, and in so far as it was possible, as Mozart’s own work. The manuscript sent to Count von Walsegg even carried a forgery of Mozart’s signature, penned by Süssmayr, whose hand was very similar to Mozart’s. Constanze was right that Süssmayr’s talent was well below that of Mozart’s, but Süssmayr was not incorrect in claiming a significant level of authorship. As a matter of family honour, Constanze may well have been playing down the role of Süssmayr, whilst he, Süssmayr, may have exaggerated the level of his contribution.

But what was the level of this contribution? To abbreviate a long and complex story: Mozart completed the opening movement (Requiem aeternam), and the vocal parts of the ensuing fugue (Kyrie eleison) with indications of instrumental scoring. He also wrote the vocal material of the movements of the Sequenz (Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Recordare, Confutatis, Lacrimosa – here stopping at bar 8), again indicating some details of the instrumentation, including for instance the trombone solo at the beginning of Tuba mirum. The Offertorium’s vocal material (Domine Jesu Christi and Hostias et preces) is also in his hand. All this material was reviewed and then completed by other hands, not only Süssmayr’s (the principal contributor to the completion) but, at an earlier stage, also those of Franz Jacob Freystädtler (who orchestrated the Kyrie), and Joseph Eybler (who fleshed out the greater part of the instrumentation of the Sequenz movements). All three of these musicians had been pupils of Mozart, and members of an inner circle of professional acquaintances on whom Constanze could naturally call to deal with the problem of completing the commission. Süssmayr’s predominance as the compositional assistant in the project emerges in the final movements ‐ in the orchestration of the Offertorium, and then rather more problematically in the composition of the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. As the historical record suggests, the return to Mozart’s music for the closing Communio (which reprises the opening two movements of the score) followed an instruction left by the composer to Süssmayr.

These later movements (Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) have been the subject of particular debate among musicians and musicologists. Some have seen in them infelicities (voice‐leading crudities, short‐winded fugues, curious tonal planning, lack of invention), all said to be the inevitable and regrettable consequence of having a next‐to‐competent hack complete a masterwork. But this is to ignore the evidence for Mozart having discussed his ideas with Süssmayr, and the existence of his sketches (single manuscript leaves, only one of which has survived). It is also to be surprised by the objections raised to some of the aspects of these movements. For instance the Benedictus has been described as being overscored in places (Druce, p.vii), suffering from harmonic stagnation (Druce, p.viii), and its instrumental opening being ‘particularly clumsy and inappropriate’ (Wolff, p.76). Similarly the Sanctus has been criticised for its perfunctory nature, and the Hosanna for crude voice‐leading and brevity (Levin, p.5). These seem to be misplaced judgements. For example, Mozart does indeed write simple instrumental anticipations of vocal entries in Benedictus settings (see his Missa brevis in B flat, K275). The vocal doubling by trombones is not inelegant when played on small‐bore instruments. And the tonal planning of the movement appears wholly competent, with its central dominant cadence, its subdominant colour at the reprise (with the tenor entry), not to mention its telling references, in the instrumental interludes, to the scoring and musical figures heard first in the opening movement of the score. This is too assured and inventive to be simply the work of a hack. As for the criticism levelled at the Hosannas, it is perhaps more a stroke of genius that they are not in the same key (with the customary da capo effect), but in different keys (D major and B flat major), the progression from B flat major (second Hosanna to Agnus) being decidedly more powerful in effect than a simple change of mode (from D major to D minor). The Sanctus with its first Hosanna was always set succinctly in the Viennese Mass tradition because it was necessary for the Benedictus to act as an Elevation motet, and the Elevation of the Host could not be long delayed since the (silent) recitation of the Canon of the Mass (the Prayer of Consecration) began immediately after the Sursum corda and Preface. It is more than likely that Süssmayr and Mozart knew exactly what they were doing in not having the Benedictus delayed by a first Hosanna any longer than the one that has come down to us.

Christoph Wolff has suggested that in his Requiem ‘Mozart wanted to give the genre of sacred music, in which he had been rather inactive for so long, a completely new direction’ (p.75). This may be seen in the entirely vocal orientation of the score, the singular instrumentation (of the woodwind, only basset‐horns and bassoons are used, as in his Masonic music), the crossreferences throughout the score (one of the more subtle examples being the melodic similarity of the opening bars of Dies irae and Sanctus), the contrapuntal rigour, and aspects of tonal planning. The absence of a separate fugal ‘Amen’ at the end of the Sequenz (for which there is a sketch of a dozen bars) may also be a ‘new direction’. Indeed, given the searing quality of the Lacrimosa, its concluding and powerful plagal ‘Amen’ cadence seems entirely convincing, retaining the impact of the text, rather than having it dissipated in a ‘clever’ fugue. And within the realm of historical speculation, to which we are bound to return, a conversation may have occurred between Mozart and Süssmayr in which Mozart voiced a preference for integrating the ‘Amen’ within the Lacrimosa, rather than making it a separate movement, sketch notwithstanding.

These, and other arguments, strongly support the view that the traditional version of the Requiem deserves, as Wolff concluded, ‘to be protected’.

And what of the Requiem’s musical qualities? Its demeanour is very different from that of Mozart’s earlier Salzburg church music, not least because this is a Mass setting for the dead. The emphasis is squarely on the vocal writing, and on thorough‐going contrapuntal practice. At the same time, Mozart reveals a growing taste for choral homophony, as exemplified in sections of Rex tremendae, Confutatis, Lacrimosa and Hostias. (This interest in chordal declamation is a feature of the setting of Ave verum corpus (K618) written some months earlier.) The orchestral palette is decidedly darkened by the choice of basset‐horns and the absence of other woodwinds besides bassoons. The affiliation of this scoring with Mozart’s Masonic music is unmistakeable. Springing from the Viennese church tradition are the quotation of a plainchant line at ‘Te decet hymnus’ (here the tonus peregrinus), the flamboyant trombone solo at the commencement of Tuba mirum, coupled with its Sarastro‐like incantations from the bass soloist, and the choice of D minor as a key associated with deep solemnity. The dramatic characterisation of the musical setting was a quality immediately appreciated by Mozart’s contemporaries. It has never lost its powerful appeal. It owes much to the composer’s understanding and manipulation of character in his mature theatre music. It also reflects Mozart’s state of mind as he composed the Requiem, which if not fevered by thoughts of his own imminent death (at least not until his very final days), was certainly spurred on by an ambition to re‐establish himself as a church composer worthy of his nomination as Kapellmeister of St Stephen’s Cathedral.

The Requiem Mass takes the traditional liturgical form of Introit (Requiem aeternam) followed immediately by Kyrie eleison. After the readings, the Sequenz was sung, a text of eighteen verses, here in Mozart’s setting split up into six discrete movements (Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Recordare, Confutatis, Lacrimosa). The Offertorium followed (Domine Jesu Christe, with its central section Hostias et preces). After the Sursum corda and Preface, the movements Sanctus + Hosanna, Benedictus + Hosanna and Agnus Dei were performed without intervening liturgy. The Communio (lux aeterna and Cum sanctis tuis) concluded the rite.


D. Druce (ed.), Mozart, Requiem, Novello, London, 1993
R.D. Levin (ed.), Mozart, Requiem, Carus‐Verlag, Stuttgart, 1996
H.C.R. Landon, Mozart’s Last Year, Thames and Hudson, GDR, 1988
H.C.R. Landon (ed.), The Mozart Companion, Schirmer, New York, 1990
C. Wolff, ‘The Composition and Completion of Mozart’s Requiem, 1791‐1792’, in C. Eisen (ed.),
Mozart Studies, Oxford, 1991, pp.61‐81