Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201

In 1773, Mozart and his father Leopold traveled to Vienna to visit Anton Mesmer, the inventor of the philosophy of mesmerism. According to Mesmer, a force he dubbed “animal magnetism” could be used to induce a hypnotic state in which the subject would feel no pain and be unable to move. (Mesmer had been a longtime force in the Mozart family as well; not only did he allegedly commission Mozart’s youthful Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne, but he was later parodied in Così fan tutte as well.) Although both father and son were intrigued by Mesmer’s reported medical miracles, it was the journey to Vienna itself that had a direct influence on Mozart’s thought. Written shortly after the trip, the Symphony No. 29 in A Major uses a four-movement form, the third of which was a minuet. The work also displays imitation and an interest in instrumental timbre, other features attributed to Viennese composers of the period.

The individual movements of Symphony No. 29, composed when Mozart was only 18, reveal an audible musical unity that seems to look ahead to the later symphonies: the first and last movements, for example, use motives that are both characterized by an octave leap. But at the same time that it seems to foreshadow later works, the piece retains an intimacy often associated with early symphonies. Not only is the scoring of the work simple (two oboes, two horns, and strings), but the muted strings and delicate texture of the second movement also suggest chamber music. Finally, the work has a pervasive dramatic spirit that often overrides traditional constraints. Far from stately music performed by over-powdered aristocrats, the Minuet is imbued with energy and vigor.

Requiem, K. 626 (Süssmayr)

Directed by Milos Forman and based on Peter Shaffer’s original play, the movie Amadeus paints a profoundly haunting picture of the writing of Mozart’s Requiem. Ailing and penniless, Mozart is forced to accept a commission from a mysterious black-robed figure. The assignment is torturous: not only does the composer fear that one of his colleagues, Antonio Salieri, is poisoning him, but he also becomes convinced that the piece he is writing—a Mass for the dead—is actually for his own funeral. He wants to abandon the project, but his mounting debts force him to continue. At the end of the movie, Mozart is too weak even to copy the music himself—and it is his nemesis, the mediocre Salieri, who conveniently arrives on the scene to help him commit his final musical utterance to paper. The story is remarkable—and much of it is false. While modern-day accounts perpetuate the myth, Mozart himself may have been the original source of the fiction. In the last stages of liver failure brought on by rheumatic fever—or possibly, as recent reports suggest, from complications of strep throat—Mozart was suffering from hallucinations and acute paranoia, and may have believed both that he was being poisoned and that the Requiem was actually for himself.

Although the rewritten tale is undeniably dramatic and Salieri makes a wonderful villain, the true story is as interesting as the myth. A mysterious figure indeed lurked behind the composition: Franz Anton Leitgeb, the grim, tall, and unsmiling emissary of Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach. A wealthy would-be composer, Walsegg-Stuppach purchased the works of more talented musicians and passed their creations off as his own. The secrecy surrounding the commission of the Requiem was not the figment of a fevered imagination, but rather a necessary part of Walsegg-Stuppach’s plan to premiere the work as a personal tribute to his recently deceased wife. The payment was generous—50 ducats, with a promise of 50 more when the work was completed—but the money did not motivate Mozart to complete the Requiem any faster. He abandoned the piece several times, taking major detours to compose La Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, and the clarinet concerto. While Mozart could sidestep the Requiem, however, he could not avoid his rapidly declining health. On December 4, 1791, in the early afternoon, three singers from the theater arrived at Mozart’s bedside to sing through the completed portions of the Requiem, the composer himself taking the alto line. When they reached the Lacrimosa, Mozart put the work aside, never to resume composing. He died just before 1 o’clock the following morning.

His widow Constanze was left with an incomplete Requiem and a very large problem. Without a finished product to deliver to Walsegg-Stuppach, no payment would be made, and indeed the advance that the Mozarts had received would have to be returned. Ever the entrepreneur, Constanze concocted a scheme to fulfill the commission in spite of her husband’s demise, asking Mozart’s favorite student, Joseph Leopold von Eybler, to complete the piece. Eybler agreed and began work on the project, but later reneged on his promise. (Somewhat ironically, Eybler died of a stroke in 1833 while conducting a performance of the Requiem.) Constanze then turned to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, another of Mozart’s students and his copyist as well, in the hopes that he would assist her. Exactly how much of the Requiem can be attributed to Süssmayr is unclear. It was originally thought that Mozart completed the Introitus, Kyrie, Sequenz (although only eight measures of the Lacrimosa), and two parts of the Offertorium. Süssmayr, therefore, re-copied much of the work Eybler had done on the orchestration, completed the Lacrimosa, and composed the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei movements. Since Süssmayr had practice imitating Mozart’s handwriting, he forged the composer’s autograph on the front page (misdating it 1792, a year after Mozart’s death!) and the “complete” Requiem was handed over to Walsegg-Stuppach. In 1962, however, a new set of sketches in Mozart’s hand was discovered, and it is now believed to be one of several that Constanze gave to Süssmayr. Ultimately, we may never know who wrote what, and ultimately, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

A somber, doleful mood and retrospective style characterize the Requiem. Primary ingredients in achieving this tone are the low woodwinds, especially the bassoons and basset horns heard from the beginning of the work. (The basset horn is a low clarinet whose name derives from the Bavarian term for small bass; the basset hound was named after the sound the instrument makes.) Hearkening back to an earlier age, counterpoint (the intertwining of two or more distinct musical voices) is also prominent throughout the piece. The solo Recordare section involves contrapuntal treatment, as do the dramatically resolute Kyrie and the bombastic Confutatis. One of the most dramatic movements of the piece, the Dies Irae employs an extremely direct, homophonic (single voice) texture. Also noteworthy are the Lux aeterna and Cum sanctis tuis sections, which are set to music from the first two movements of the piece. Whether this was Mozart’s original intention, of course, is up for debate. While some scholars complain that this weakens the end of the Requiem, others remain untroubled by the re-use of music. As musicologist Stanley Sadie notes, “it at least ensures that the Requiem ends in fully authentic tones.”

© Jennifer More Glagov, 2010

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