Notes from a recent performance of Mozart’s Requiem


Last September 14 I had the opportunity to conduct Mozart’s Requiem in the Decio Theater of Notre Dame, with the Notre Dame Festival Chorus and Orchestra and the wonderful soloists Jessica McCormack, soprano; Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano; Nick Fitzer, tenor; and Stephen Lancaster, bass.  Given that the hall is designed for drama and the spoken voice, I thought we would connect with our audience’s expectations better through a slightly unconventional approach, and instead of presenting a pre-concert talk, we delivered the same contextual ideas through a mini-play that interspersed excerpts from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus with Mozart’s own letters and excerpts from academic essays, all acted by ND’s Shakespeare Artistic Director Grant Mudge and the gifted drama students Joey Doyle and Natalia Cuevas.  Even the chorus and the orchestra joined the stage as actors in the play.  We were surprised by the specially warm reaction of young people who knew little of Mozart, who attended to  support their fellow drama students.  After “seeing him” speak onstage of his ideas and tribulations, before listening to the Requiem, they wished to hear all the versions of the Requiem they could find on record. Perhaps many  in our society are used to see the composer with his band, and feel at odds with the classical convention of the dead and canonized artist. There may be now a discordance between the dominant audience perception of how music works in our times and the 19th-century concert model. My collaborators and I were joyous that we may have reached a new audience.

When the Sacred Music Program at Notre Dame won a Mellon grant in 2012 to initiate projects in sacred music drama, it allowed me, as the principal investigator, a more constant and focused reflection on the possible relationships between music and the surrounding community.  A sacred music drama opens a space for the performance of collective ideas and social issues in an objectively visual and aural environment. These ideas could be fully embraced by the community, or perhaps they are barely emerging.  Either way, they can be expressed with an affective charge in a sacred music drama.

Of course, sacred music drama can be argued to have only one specific form (staged, ritualized, collective, narrative) but the argument can also be made that a sacred music drama can take place in the mind of the listener, as the ideas can be embedded symbolically and rhetorically in a piece of music intended for the concert hall.  A concert choral symphony or oratorio can adopt the mantle of sacred music drama, even when it was not conceived as such, if it becomes iconic by the force of its perceived content. This can be said of Mozart’s Requiem, a work that was created in the tradition of music for the Catholic liturgy, but that has captured the popular imagination for two centuries.  More recently, Mozart’s Requiem appeared in the culminating scenes of the award-winning movie Amadeus, itself an adaptation of the equally praised play of the same name.  In the movie, the composer is seen struggling to complete the piece in his deathbed, after having been commissioned by a mysterious masked stranger. This scene is one of the most memorable in recent film, and one through which many people otherwise unaware of classical compositions recognize the Requiem’s music.

The story of the creation of Mozart’s Requiem was clouded in mystery for many years after Mozart’s death.  It is true that a masked stranger visited Mozart in the summer of 1791, requesting the composition of a Requiem Mass.  Mozart may or may not have been troubled by the commission, but he soon became ill, prophesizing that the Requiem Mass was for himself.  The “Grey Messenger” was, in fact, the servant of Franz Count von Walsegg, who had commissioned the Requiem in memory of his wife, but who also wanted the piece to be known as his own–hence the secretive circumstances of the commission. Nonetheless, for many years rumors circulated that the rival composer Antonio Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and that he died in miserable circumstances forcing his burial in a common grave.  In fact, Baron van Swieten paid for the funeral, and none other than Salieri attended the final procession.

Mozart’s wife, Constanze, may have cultivated this mythology as she tried to defend the composer’s legacy.  Mozart died in December 1791 before completing the work, but Constanze hid this fact from the work’s commissioner by asking Mozart’s friend and student Franz Xaver Sússmayr to complete the work.  This he did by using extant sketches and by composing outright the missing movements.   Cliff Eisen has argued that Süssmayr may have witnessed Mozart’s compositional process, allowing him to infer and apply credible solutions. The process is reported to have been as follows:  Upon starting the Requiem, Mozart thought about the genre, its compositional traditions, and the rhetorical gestures needed to persuade the listener; second, he would formulate a large scale plan with salient points; then he would allow his imagination to roam freely through explorations at the keyboard, and finally, when he felt clarity about the direction of the work, he would begin to write it. Even then, he would commit the movements to paper out of order, starting in this case with the most contrapuntally complex ones, the Introit, Kyrie and Offertory. This understanding of Mozart’s compositional process reinforces the notion that Süssmayr witnessed Mozart’s dialogue with himself, and was therefore able to reconstruct what was already intended.  In total, Süssmayr completed the Lacrymosa from the Sequence, as Mozart had stopped on the eighth measure, but not daring to compose a fugue for the Amen. He finished the orchestration of movements that had been fully sketched, and composed the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei.  For the Communio he resorted to symmetry and repeated the music from the Introit.

Mozart’s Requiem became immediately popular, first in Vienna and then throughout Western Europe. Parts of it were played in Mozart’s own funeral. After a performance at the Paris Conservatory in 1801, it soon flourished as a concert piece suitable for the memorials of great personalities, including Beethoven and Napoleon. In spite of this unquestionable success, the critical opinion does not always emphasize that the Requiem as a musical genre was forever changed after Mozart’s masterpiece. Mozart was always artful in his adoption of established traditions and the compositions of others. Demonstrable and arguable models include Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Charlotte, the opening of Bach’s St John Passion as well as the Requiems of Franz J. Gossec and Florian L. Gassman. Mozart certainly was present for the performance of Michael Haydn’s Requiem. Mozart’s Requiem clearly digests the achievements of these works and traditions.  However, in a manner that truly foreshadows Romanticism, Mozart’s Requiem is the first to very deliberately represent the Final Judgment scenes from the Sequence with a full display of melodic, rhythmic and instrumental techniques to incite the experience of extreme emotions of terror, supplication and redemption. All composers setting the Requiem after Mozart would bring powerful descriptive gifts to the genre and expand on Mozart’s direction– from the cosmic and cinematic version of Hector Berlioz (1837) through the fully operatic approach by Giuseppe Verdi (1874) to the pacifist attitude of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, equating the World Wars to the end of time. The Requiem then became the choral genre where a composer would be able to display the full range of his rhetorical technique.  Only after 100 years we saw a reaction in favor of affects of consolation and serenity in significant Catholic Requiems, with the examples of Fauré (1887-1900) and Duruflé (1947).

Mozart intuitively sensed that the world he knew was ending.  The American and French Revolutions had taken place, and intimations of war and terror were already present throughout Europe, as the old order of monarchies, aristocracies and tribal nations began to collapse.  Within this awareness, he brought to the Requiem the humanism and revolutionary political subtext of his operas, casting many of the liturgical words into melodies of nuanced tenderness and personal emotion.  In the vocal quartets of the Requiem we can sense the same compositional virtuosity of the operatic quartets, where he is able to communicate simultaneously the thoughts of many characters, while still delineating each personality. Paradoxically, this humanism only reveals his uncanny understanding of the theology behind the Requiem. Vivid representations of the dimensions of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise are only folds for the illumination of the special role of Jesus in the scheme of salvation. Mozart achieves the expression of the universality of Catholic thought with compassion and vitality.

C.H.T, 9/14/13

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