This Week in Music History: The premiere of Mozart’s (completed) Requiem (1793)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of a work that has been at the center of bizarre and implausible lies since nearly the beginning…

“As obscure as it is strange,” was how Mozart’s first biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, described the story of his Requiem in 1798. Niemetschek’s telling of the story wasn’t all true. But he had a point all the same.

It’s well known today that Amadeus, brilliant film though it is, is not historically accurate. But it’s less well known that bizarre and implausible lies have been circulating about Mozart’s Requiem more or less ever since its composer’s untimely death, on December 5, 1791.

Niemetschek’s story will look familiar to many today: the strange commission from a mysterious messenger; Mozart’s sudden illness and depression; his tearful declaration to his wife, “Did I not say before that I was writing this Requiem for myself?” And then, of course, his death, with the manuscript still incomplete. But did Mozart really say that? How could we know?

Friedrich Rochlitz, another writer on Mozart in the years just after his death, appears to have exaggerated things still further. That legendary messenger, he wrote, “must have been an unusual being, one who stood in close connection with the world beyond or who had been sent to him to announce his death.” He must have been. Of course.

The key source behind these stories might seem a little shocking at first: Constanze, Mozart’s widow. Niemetschek, the book claims, tells the story “as he has often heard it from the lips of Mozart’s widow.” The more sensational aspects to the story may well have come straight from her.

“Moment from the Last Days of Mozart” (Franz Schramm, 1857). Mozart, center, has the score of the Requiem on his lap. His student Süssmayr is on his left, wife Constanze in the corner behind them, and the messenger at the door.

In fact, in the aftermath of her husband’s death, Constanze worked very hard, not only to promote the Requiem but also to get the thing completed. It fell to Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr to do the best possible job, picking up where Mozart had left off in the Lacrymosa. His effort has been roundly mocked for several centuries now. Can it really be that bad? It’s still the most often performed.

The first performance of Süssmayr’s completion probably took place in Vienna on January 2, 1793: more than a year after Mozart’s death. The concert, organized by Gottfried van Swieten, who had been a patron of Mozart’s, was for Constanze’s benefit: it was part of her ultimately successful effort to manage her husband’s legacy and provide for her children. She remarried in 1809, and lived until 1842.

By then, the Requiem legend was somewhat out of control. The musicologist Simon P. Keefe, in his fascinating book Mozart’s Requiem, recounts some of the most entertaining mentions of the Requiem in 19th-century sources. “It is reported that some supernatural being ordered this Requiem, which Mozart only finished a few hours before his death,” one reads. Hmm.

But, as well as this belief in its otherworldly origins, many of Keefe’s sources bear rather peculiar testament the uncanny power of the music. Writing in 1869, Friedrich Nippold recounts a story from the painter Rudolph Friedrich Watzmann, who heard the piece in Dresden. “The famous Mozart Requiem performed in a monster concert… overpowered me to such an extent that, when I got home, I threw myself on the floor and cried and shouted nonsensically.”

“As obscure as it is strange?” Absolutely.

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