The True Story of Mozart’s Requiem Mass

The 1984 movie Amedee — and the play it was based on – took liberties with history, including the story behind the composition of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor. But the real story is just as dramatic and the stuff of legend – and wild conspiracy theories. So let’s try to sort fact from fiction.

It was 1791 and the young Austrian composer Wolfgang Mozart was going through a prolific period. That year, he completed two operas. One was Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), which will be performed in a theater owned by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. The other opera was Tito’s clemency (The Clemency of Titus), commissioned by the court of Emperor Leopold II. In 1791 Mozart also composed several other of his most popular works, including the Clarinet Concerto in A major (K 622) and the beloved short choral work Ave verum corpus.

A stranger and a commission

In July 1791, the story goes, a “grey stranger” came to Mozart’s apartment in Vienna to order a funeral mass, a requiem. The stranger said he represented a patron who wished to remain anonymous. We know that the stranger was Anton Leitgeb, son of the mayor of Vienna, and that the boss was Leitgeb’s employer, Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach. And it is likely that Mozart also knew who these people were.

The Earl wanted a requiem to honor his late wife. According to some sources, Mozart had been the Count’s second choice as a composer. The commission had originally been offered to Mozart’s rival composer, Antonio Salieri, who claimed to be too busy to take it. It should be noted that the Earl was known to commission music from composers and then claim that he wrote it himself. This was not an uncommon practice among the nobility.

Mozart had struggled with financial setbacks in recent years. He really wasn’t very good at living within his means. In 1791 his situation improved somewhat and he repaid some of his debts. Still, he may have felt he couldn’t afford to turn away a customer, especially one who paid half up front. He agreed to compose the requiem without revealing himself as the composer. The mass was to be celebrated on February 14, 1792, the first anniversary of the death of the count’s wife.

Mozart’s Requiem

What we know to be true: in late August or early September, Mozart traveled to Prague for the premiere of Tito’s clemency. Die Zauberflote created in Vienna at the end of September under the direction of Mozart. Mozart’s last opera was a huge success, with several sold-out performances. At this time he also completed the composition of the Clarinet Concerto in A major. And he started working on the requiem. In November he also produced a cantata which was performed for the opening of a neo-Masonic temple on 18 November. And there was a new baby in the Mozart household, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, born July 26.

So we know that Mozart worked hard and probably lacked sleep. We know that around November 20, he went to bed with pain, swelling, a rash and vomiting. It is widely reported that he continued to work on the requiem despite his illness. And we know that Mozart died in the early morning of December 5, 1791. He was 35 years old.

conspiracy theories

After his death Mozart became the center of a celebrity cult and his music was more popular than ever. Mozart’s fame was undoubtedly fueled by his wife’s account of his death. Constanze Mozart said her husband had been ill since early September. Writing the requiem exhausted Mozart, she says, as he always believed he was writing the funeral mass for himself, and his health deteriorated for several weeks.

Additionally, Constanze said, he believed he had been poisoned. Newspapers quickly picked up the poisoning allegation and repeated it. The story got even better over time. A few years later, Constanze claimed that six months before his death, Mozart announced that he had been given a slow-acting poison and that the poisoner had instructed him to write his own requiem mass.

But who poisoned Mozart? Over the years, the finger has been pointed at Freemasons, allegedly because Mozart revealed Masonic secrets in Die Zauberflote. What exactly those secrets were is yet to be secret. At the start of the 20th century, a German politician and infamous anti-Semite named Hermann Ahlwardt accused the Jews of poisoning Mozart. Ahlwardt didn’t live long enough to experience Hitler and the Third Reich, but he would have fit in perfectly. Shortly after Ahlwardt’s claims, a German neuropsychiatrist named Mathilde Ludendorff, who was the wife of WWI General Erich Ludendorff, proposed that Mozart was murdered by a secret Jewish-Jesuit-Freemason cabal. . The composer was killed, she says, for refusing to write music in the Italian style (which was not true). And the ultimate goal was to establish a cosmopolitan Jewish world state. Yes, it was QAnon-worthy madness. No, she wasn’t kidding.

Was it Salieri? Or Streptococcus?

The first person to point the finger at Antonio Salieri was the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), who wrote a short play about the alleged homicide titled Mozart and Salieri. This play served as the basis for an opera by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1898 and eventually for the stage play Amedee by Peter Shaffer which was incorporated into the film. There are reports that towards the end of his life Salieri claimed to have murdered Mozart, but Salieri was almost certainly psychologically deficient at the time.

Medical experts today say the most likely culprit, given the symptoms, was an infectious disease, not a poison. A 2009 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine presented detailed evidence that there had been an outbreak of streptococcal infections in Vienna at the time of Mozart’s death, and streptococcus would certainly have explained his symptoms. But it would be the same for many other diseases.

An incomplete work

Let’s go back to December 1791. Constanze Mozart was a widow with two small children and no means of support. And she ended up with an unfinished requiem mass. She feared that if she could not deliver a finished composition, Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach might demand her money, let alone withhold the second payment. Her task was to find a composer to work anonymously so that she could give the Count a finished work that could be claimed to be entirely by Mozart. However, she also had the finished parts of Mozart’s Requiem played at Mozart’s Memorial Mass, which may have thwarted any plans by the Count to claim the work as his own.

Mozart’s last manuscript was given to a succession of composers, some of whom altered it slightly before returning it. The task was eventually taken over by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a friend and sometimes collaborator of Mozart. The manuscript given to the count in 1792 was part Mozart and part Süssmayr. But which parts?

I’ve seen claims that Mozart only wrote half of Mozart’s Requiem, but I argue that he wrote more than that. We have an extant manuscript of the Requiem by Mozart, so there are parts that we know for sure that he wrote. We know that he completely finished the first movement, the Introitus, with all the vocal and orchestral parts. For much of the rest he completed the vocal parts, but only part of the instrumentation.

What Süssmayr wrote

This semi-finished section includes the Kyrie and most of the Sequentia and the Offertorium, although the last part of the Sequentia, the Lacrimosa, remained unfinished. (It is assumed that the opening bars of the Lacrimosa were the last notes Mozart ever wrote.) Again, the parts sung by the choir and soloists in this section were composed, at least for the most part, by Mozart . Additionally, Mozart had provided a plan, or skeleton, to Süssmayr for the orchestration. (This page will show you what I’m talking about here.)

There were three parts of a standard requiem mass – the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei – missing from Mozart’s manuscript which were added by Süssmayr, scholars say Süssmayr borrowed themes from Mozart’s other works for these parts. Süssmayr also completed the Lacrimosa and completed the Requiem by repeating the Introitus music with the lyrics of the Lux aeterna. The manuscript completed by Süssmayr was handed over to Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach with Mozart’s forged signature and dated, curiously, to 1792. Over the years, other composers took over Mozart’s manuscript and attempted to complete the Requiem in different ways. But the Süssmayr version is still standard.

The Count indeed tried to claim the work as his own composition, but most listeners did not buy it. It was too good. Many have guessed that it was the requiem that Mozart wrote when he died. Ten years later, the count finally admits that the requiem was written by Mozart.

What Mozart Wrote

Mozart could have written a perfectly beautiful requiem mass that Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach could credibly claim as his own, but he did not. It seems to me that he set out to write a masterpiece that no one could confuse with an amateur work. Mozart’s Requiem is one of the most performed works in the Western choral repertoire to date. Almost any list of the ten best choral works of all time that you find will include Mozart’s Requiem.

There’s no better way to get to know a piece of music than to perform it, and I’ve had the privilege of being part of several choirs performing Mozart’s Requiem over the years. And it knocks me out, every time. Mozart was at the top of his game in this work. Yes, Süssmayr parts are insufficient. Personally, I think the Sanctus is a siesta that looks nothing like Mozart. And I have never met a musician who agreed with Süssmayr’s decision to end the piece by repeating the music from the beginning. But, all together, it remains a marvel.

A statue of Mozart located in the Burggarten of the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. Sculpted by Viktor Tilgner. Source: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

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