Mozart - Requiem: A masterpiece shrouded in mystery

Mozart's Requiem is a choral masterpiece whose genesis is shrouded in mystery – one that makes the piece all the more fascinating and emotionally stirring.

Amadeus Film Still

Mozart was not in the best state of mind when he received an anonymous commission to compose a Requiem Mass. His health was deteriorating and he believed he had been cursed to write a requiem as a ‘swansong’ for himself, because he was sure he was about to die.

It was in early July 1791 that an ‘unknown, gray stranger’ turned up at the composer’s door saying he represented someone who wanted a Requiem from Mozart on the understanding that he not seek to learn the identity of his patron.

Spooked by the commission, Mozart threw himself obsessively into the work. But it was all too much. He was only able to complete the Requiem and Kyrie movements, and managed to sketch the voice parts and bass lines for the Dies irae through  to the Hostias.

Mozart died aged 35 on 5 December 1791, before he could complete the work. Payment had already been received, and Mozart’s widow Constanze feared that if the work was handed over incomplete the patron would want his money back. She asked one Joseph Eybler to finish the score, but other than orchestrating the music following the Kyrie, he passed the task over to Mozart’s pupil Süssmayer, to whom the composer had given detailed instructions about finishing it. Süssmayer copied the entire completed score in his own hand - making it virtually impossible to determine who wrote what - and gave it to the stranger.

So was the ‘mysterious stranger’ Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri, much slandered villain of the film Amadeus? Almost certainly not. It was Anton Leitgeb, son of the mayor of Vienna and the valet of Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, who already had acquired the reputation of palming other people’s music off as his own. The Count was hoping to use Mozart’s Requiem to commemorate his late wife, Anna. It took a full decade before Constanze was able to persuade Walsegg to acknowledge Mozart as the Requiem’s true composer.

Regardless of who wrote which parts of the Requiem it still sounds wonderful to most of us. And let me give Beethoven the final word on the matter: ‘If Mozart did not write the music, then the man who wrote it was a Mozart.’

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