“Mozart stopped writing here.”
Those were the words one soprano had written after bar 8 of the Lacrymosa in her score of Mozart’s Requiem: just so she could be sure which bits were from the hand of the master, and which from his much-less gifted composer friend Franz Sussmayr. We were singing with the choir Spires Philharmonic Chorus, who are currently rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem for a performance at Holy Trinity Church Coventry on Saturday 11 April 2015 (those readers local to Coventry please note in your diaries!)
I was tempted along to these rehearsals by Mozart himself. The lure of singing his requiem once more was too much to resist.
Mozart’s Requiem is justifiably renowned for its sublime beauty; but it also gains fame for the quirky and curious stories which surround its composition. Most of this confusion, I understand, derives from different interviews given by Mozart’s wife Constanza who made considerable efforts to mask the truth about the Requiem, in the months and years following Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. On 18 January 2015, I saw a BBC TV programme The Joy of Mozart in which the presenter Tom Service was lamenting the false image of Mozart pedalled by the commercial Mozart industry in Salzburg. One of these popular ideas is that after Mozart died, his body was callously thrown into a mass grave in the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna, and he had a “pauper’s funeral” utterly disregarding his status as one of the world’s greatest composers. Yet these facts are probably totally misinterpreted by those who misunderstand normal burial arrangements in his society at that time.
Additionally a popular idea about Mozart is that he composed his Requiem in the knowledge that he was about to die, believing it to be his own requiem. Yet it has recently been pointed out at the time Mozart would have expected to recover from his illness, finish the requiem, and write much more music besides.
At the end of The Joy of Mozart, Tom Service observed that the final word has to be with those who love his music.
As I sing this requiem I respond to it not as a musicologist – although our chorus founder and conductor ColinTouchin provided as much of that as we could have wished for – I respond to to it on a profound emotional level. The very first chord of this requiem has such a powerful effect upon me; I cannot begin to analyse it. Although as Colin Touchin told us it is thought that Mozart was the very first composer to use the key of E Flat Minor, and I do sometimes think it must be good to analyse the reasons why this music effects us so deeply, I also think the rest of us just have to accept the profound emotional impact Mozart’s music makes, and leave it at that. We are left with this, beyond all the musicology and the analysis.
We know that Mozart managed to complete only parts of the requiem before he died, and the rest was completed by Franz Sussmayr, selected for the job by Mozart’s widow Constanza, who was worried she wouldn’t get paid for the requiem if she didn’t find someone to finish it; and she chose Sussmayr only after she’d considered other candidates and rejected them. It seems a game we cannot resist, to convince ourselves that certain bits cannot possibly have been written by Sussmayr, they must have been written by Mozart. Yet the fact remains that Sussmayr, not considered by musicologists to have been a particularly outstanding composer, did indeed complete the requiem and did it so creditably that the requiem remains one of the most loved and revered pieces of choral music ever written. What a task that must have been for Sussmayr; and perhaps my best insight into his situation lies in this idea: if I imagine how I would feel if I were asked to complete an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.