Truth is stronger than fiction

Mozart's `Requiem' is so powerful that it overshadows the portentous myths

Classical Music

March 25, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There is a certain comfort in myths. They can provide neat, satisfying explanations for things we can't easily understand or accept.

And so, for the better part of two centuries, many people embraced the story of how Mozart received a strange, anonymous commission to compose a "Requiem," then felt a strong premonition that he was really writing it for his own soul. And how he died - possibly after being poisoned, possibly by a rival composer - without having completed the score, and was given a pathetic pauper's burial. And how there weren't even any mourners present, because the few who had been willing to accompany the casket to the cemetery were turned back by fierce wind and rain.

The truth about the "Requiem" and Mozart's demise is, alas, not quite so romantic.

It turns out that the composer probably knew who had commissioned the work and that, until the last days, he was quite cheery while trying to complete it. No one poisoned him, least of all fellow composer Antonio Salieri. (The vision of a dying Mozart dictating the "Requiem" to a murderous Salieri is but one of the unfortunate legacies of Peter Shaffer's otherwise intriguing play and film, "Amadeus.")

Note, too, that the majority of Viennese citizens opted for no-frills burials in those days. Even the weather didn't cooperate with the myth-makers; contemporary newspapers report sunshine and calm on the day of the funeral. (Actually, it's not absolutely clear which day Mozart was interred - the 6th or 7th of December, 1791 - but it doesn't matter; there was a decided lack of inclement conditions on both.)

But the real circumstances surrounding the composer's last artistic effort have plenty of power and poignancy without benefit of embellishments and legends. And even though a substantial portion was not written by Mozart, the "Requiem," which will be performed this week by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, makes a fitting summation of an incomparably creative life.

Manuscript in pieces

When Mozart died, he left a very incomplete manuscript of the "Requiem" behind. Only the first section, the "Introit," was entirely finished by him; bits and pieces of other portions were sketched out to varying degrees, but not a note was written of the last four sections of this Mass for the Dead. This was unfortunate not just for Mozart but also for his widow, who was counting on the money due to the composer for the completed work.

The commission for the "Requiem" was, indeed, unusual. The identity of the man paying for the piece was initially kept secret, but Mozart probably learned soon who he was - Count Walsegg, who had a habit of getting composers to write music that he would then pass off as his own. In this case, he wanted a "Requiem" that would be performed on the anniversary of his wife's death.

When Mozart took the commission - and half of an extravagant fee - he was in great spirits and, as his letters attest, stayed that way for much of the time while working on the music. The idea that he felt terrible premonitions of impending death may have been circulated posthumously to give the "Requiem," and his life, even greater weight.

There are reports that, once confined to bed for his last two weeks by illness (most likely rheumatic fever), Mozart was obsessed with the "Requiem." Some of his friends reportedly sang through parts of it for him, stopping after a few bars of the "Lacrimosa" section ("Day of tears and mourning") because the composer was weeping violently.

That anecdote, in particular, sounds just a little too neat, given that Mozart's draft of the "Lacrimosa" actually breaks off after the first eight bars. Still, it's a good story. And surely Mozart did not miss the irony of a "Requiem" serving as his last compositional effort.

The notes he did manage to get down on paper contain an extraordinary intensity of expression. Just those eight measures of the "Lacrimosa," for example, which form a prolonged sigh of the heart, are enough to demonstrate how strongly inspired Mozart was by the assignment.

If he was appalled at the idea that a pompous aristocrat would get to pretend authorship of the music, Mozart didn't let that prevent him from trying to create something indelible.

Forged swan song

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the "Requiem" is that a complete work could be sewn together from the threads Mozart left, and sewn by a comparatively inconsequential person. Franz Xaver Sussmayr, a student and friend often kidded mercilessly by Mozart, was eventually asked by Mozart's widow, who needed the money, to provide Count Walsegg with a complete manuscript and collect the rest of the fee. It was, in a way, a loving act of forgery.

Although scholars and esteemed musicians have criticized Sussmayr's work, they have also disagreed among themselves on exactly how much of the finished "Requiem" is his, and how much Mozart's - which says something about Sussmayr's humble talents.

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