19/20 Season: Classics 2 - Mozart's Final Year

This all-Mozart program consists of three works composed in the last five months of the composer’s life. (And even the opera, the concerto, and the Requiem were by no means all he wrote in that time!) Mozart’s health had been very problematic even from early childhood. He had a number of bouts with what was apparently rheumatic fever as a child. Reading accounts of his early diseases, one marvels that he even lived to adulthood. But even at the end, with his health failing badly, he continued to compose profound and moving works. Still, it is impossible not to wonder what the world of music would have been like if penicillin had been known in 1760.


Overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K.620

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgang Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (and never Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna, Austria on December 5, 1791. He composed Die Zauberflöte in the summer of 1791, completing the score in September; the overture, composed last, was written on the 28th. The opera received its first performance at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna on September 30. The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 7 minutes.

In The Magic Flute, Mozart creates a musical world unlike any other: a world in which an evil queen expresses her foul intentions through the most elaborate coloratura, a child of nature covered with bird feathers sings in the accents of popular song, a prince and princess undergo trials to elevate them above the mere external rank of aristocracy to the higher rank of “Mensch” (human being) in song of elevated simplicity, and a fatherly priestlike figure sings what Bernard Shaw once described as the only music ever written by a human being fit for the mouth of God.

The theme of man’s higher and lower natures, symbolized by day and night, with the powerfully inevitable musical triumph of day at the end of the opera, made the work itself a totem for a whole world‑view. Beethoven regarded The Magic Flute as one of the marvels of the age. The least symbol‑minded viewer cannot miss the fact that the opera is about much more than its surface pretends to tell.

It is widely known that Mozart, like many artists and intellectuals of his day, was an active Freemason at

a time when that secret organization stood for liberalizing influences of the Enlightenment in a Vienna that was still largely under an oppressive control of the State hand‑in‑glove with the Church. The Magic Flute is filled with the symbols of Masonic rite, one of the most prominent of which is the number three: there are three Ladies, three Boys, three knocks at the doors of the temple, and three musical

Key of E-flat Major

instruments (panpipe, flute, and bells) onstage. Mozart puts the entire opera into a “three‑key” of E‑flat, which has three flats in the signature. And because the opera ends in that key, Mozart’s inevitable practice is that the overture must also be in the same key.

About the Music
The overture begins with a slow introduction consisting of three harmonies, scored for the full orchestra, introducing a searching Adagio. This is followed by a lively Allegro with a quasi‑fugal development. Early listeners may have been confused by this abrupt shift from the churchly to the farcical, but those who know the opera can appreciate how Mozart foreshadows in these first measures the extraordinary range of the musical language that will follow. His overture hints at a single internal musical reference from the opera (the threefold chord sounded as Tamino seeks admission to the initiation). Beyond that he works out his musical ideas in a straightforward way, only slightly colored in the coda by a threatening turn figure, fortissimo, which yields to the warm sunshine of the final E‑flat major.


Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K.622

At some point between the end of September and mid-November 1791, Mozart wrote a concerto for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, who presumably gave its first performance in Vienna soon after. The concerto does not, however, survive in the form in which Mozart wrote it (for a basset-clarinet of a lower range than the modern instrument), and it is generally played in an adaptation of unknown authorship dating from about 1800. The orchestra consists of two flutes, two bassoons, and two horns, plus strings. Duration is about 25 minutes.

For much of the last two centuries, Mozart was viewed as a Dresden china doll, hardly human at all—marked with a divine spark that allowed him to churn out one perfect masterpiece after another, but untouched by the normal hurly-burly of the world. (In recent decades the tendency has, naturally enough for these tabloid times, gone far in the opposite direction, partly because of the way he is depicted in the film Amadeus, producing a counter-image that is equally unreliable.) But if a composer’s works truly reflect his character and state of mind, the music that Mozart composed in the last year or so of his life played into the first image. Scarcely any work is more serenely beautiful than his final instrumental composition, the Clarinet Concerto, composed for the great instrumentalist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), whose abilities had inspired Mozart before, in the Clarinet Quintet and the wonderful solos for the instrument in La clemenza di Tito.

Stadler played this concerto on a specially constructed instrument that had four additional semitones below the bottom note of the soprano clarinet in A. This instrument is now often referred to as a “basset-clarinet” to distinguish it from the standard instrument. Since that instrument became obsolete in short order, the music that Mozart wrote for it—which fitted like a glove—needed to be adjusted for performances with the standard clarinet. Mozart’s own manuscript is lost, so the only source we have for playing this music is early printed editions from about ten years after the composition of the concerto and Mozart’s death; but these have been adjusted for the standard clarinet (with occasional leaps into an upper octave to finish the line that Mozart carried lower to its natural ending.) Both the “traditional” version, as published about 1801, and the reconstructed and presumed “original” version of the concerto appear in Franz Giegling’s edition in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe.

About the Music
Mozart left oboes out of his orchestra so that their penetrating sound would not affect the wonderfully liquid color of the remaining instruments and especially the solo clarinet. The first movement is spacious and open in its feel, yet filled with elements that provide tightness and cohesion to the structure, particularly a number of passages carried on by canonic imitation, so that the solo instrument and the orchestra are always sharing a part in the same story, rather than competing in different musical worlds (as may happen in a virtuosic work). For all the tranquility of feeling, there is also a distinct poignancy to this music, which moves regularly into minor keys that temporarily darken the landscape until the compact reworking of materials in the recapitulation returns us to normality.

Adagio is a marking that Mozart reserves for some of his most deeply felt music, and this slow movement, which projects an utter serenity, unfolds in the greatest simplicity. The final rondo, on the other hand, while based on those whistleable tunes that constitute most rondos, is filled with tricky touches, including a play of phrase rhythms that keeps the movement from ever becoming predictable. And in the midst of all this calm good cheer, an episode that brings the activity to a sudden stop, as if in self-doubt, is one of the most poignant touches in all of Mozart’s concertos, leaving its wistful touch on the finale, even through its energetic close.


Requiem in D minor, K.626 (completed by Robert Levin)

It is traditionally said that the first performance of the Requiem was given in the new monastery church at Wiener Neustadt on December 14, 1793, billed as a composition by Franz, Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who had commissioned it anonymously with the intention of passing it off as his own, for use on the occasion of a solemn Mass in memory of his wife. Yet Mozart’s old friend Baron van Swieten performed a Requiem—presumably Mozart’s own—at a concert given 11 months earlier as a benefit to support the composer’s widow and two surviving children. Mozart’s instrumentation is most unusual, though it fits the expressive needs of a Requiem: he omits all the brighter woodwind instrument—flutes and oboes—and replaces the clarinet with its darker relative, the basset horn. He also omits horns from the brass section. The resulting ensemble consists of solo vocal quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), mixed chorus, and an orchestra of basset horns, bassoons, and high trumpets in pairs, three trombones, strings, and organ (as continuo instrument). Duration is about 46 minutes.

Sometime early in the summer of 1791, Mozart received a mysterious visitor, a “gray messenger,” who offered him 50 ducats as the first half of a commissioning fee for the composition of a Requiem. Mozart accepted because he badly needed the money, but the oddity of the incident and his own depression and ill health conspired to make him unduly morbid. At times he took the strange messenger to be an emissary of Death. Actually the messenger was an agent for one Count Walsegg‑Stuppach (or possibly the Count himself), who demanded secrecy because he intended to perform the Requiem in memory of his wife Anna, who had died prematurely in February, and to pass it off as his own composition. (He had done this previously with commissions from other composers.)

Mozart seems to have composed the Requiem in three stages interrupted by other responsibilities. He started in the mid‑summer period before going to Prague late in August to attend the premiere of La clemenza di Tito, which he had written at breakneck speed. Then, after returning to Vienna in mid‑September and completing The Magic Flute on the 25th and the Clarinet Concerto the following day, he worked on the Requiem until mid‑October, when his wife Constanze took the score away from him because she feared it would damage his now‑precarious health.

Mozart began to be obsessed with the notion that he was writing the work in preparation for his own death, and he even raved that he had poisoned himself (from which delusions arose the legend that his “rival” Salieri had in fact poisoned him, a tale that has been thoroughly disproved but keeps popping up nonetheless). Mozart’s fatal illness seems, on balance, to have been rheumatic fever, which he had suffered in childhood and several times in his adult years. Eighteenth-century medicine was not yet aware of the connection between rheumatic fever and severe damage to the heart.

A more lucid spell in November allowed him to work on the Requiem and even to make one final public appearance to direct the performance of his Little Masonic Cantata on November 18. Two days later he took to the bed that he never left. Mozart is supposed to have discussed his plans and sketches for the Requiem with his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had recently assisted him in finishing La clemenza di Tito by composing all the recitatives, and presumably also with Joseph Eybler.

Every Mozart biography recounts an incident that supposedly took place eleven hours before his death, when a quartet of friends gathered to sing through some of the vocal parts of the unfinished Requiem, Mozart himself taking the alto line. They sang as far as the opening measures of the Lacrymosa when, according to this account, “Mozart began to weep uncontrollably and laid the score to one side.” This familiar story comes from an oral source that is highly suspect. The composer’s sister-in-law Sophie Haibel (née Weber) wrote down her recollections of the last days—the only participant to do so—and makes it clear that Mozart was in no condition to sit up or sing at that time. The quartet story seems to be merely romantic embellishment, particularly since it draws special attention to the last phrase that Mozart wrote.

On December 3 he felt a little better, but the following day he took a serious turn for the worst. The still youthful composer died an hour after midnight, early on December 5, eight weeks short of his thirty‑sixth birthday.

Constanze’s first concern was that the torso of the Requiem be brought to completion; she needed the remainder of the commissioning fee and feared that, if the work was not completed, she would have to return the portion already spent. Mozart had completed only the opening Introit in full score, with the complete orchestration, but he had substantially completed the Kyrie. He had, with one exception, completed the long Sequence (the Dies irae, etc.) and the Offertory. These drafts consisted of his normal full sketch: the completed choral part, the orchestral bass line, with a few essential indications for the remainder of the orchestration. The final section of the Sequence, the Lacrimosa, was still just a fragment; Mozart had composed the vocal parts for the first eight measures—as far as the powerful crescendo on a rising chromatic line in the soprano—and then, as if the effort was too much for him, he broke off the manuscript entirely.

Constanze sought another composer who would be willing to finish the Requiem and pass the whole off as Mozart’s for the purpose of fulfilling the commission. She first approached Joseph Eybler, who began work with devotion and insight. He first completed the orchestration of the finished passages of the Dies irae movements, entering the added instrumental parts directly into Mozart’s manuscript. But when it came to composing original material from the point where Mozart dropped the work, he wrote out two measures of a soprano line in the Lacrimosa and decided to give up the attempt. Constanze evidently asked several other composers to undertake the work but was forced to settle, in the end, on Süssmayr. (If, as Sophie Haibel states, Süssmayr was receiving instructions from Mozart immediately before his death, it is odd that Constanze took so long to turn to him, but that is one of many still-puzzling problems about the Requiem.)

Süssmayr recopied the entire completed part of the manuscript (since there were already two different handwritings in the original score, it would have been hard to pass it off as a work of Mozart’s to Count Walsegg), wrote his own orchestration for the Dies irae movements, and completed the rest of the Requiem, possibly—though documentation is totally lacking—on the basis of sketches left by Mozart. Mozart discussed the piece incessantly in his last days. And Süssmayr may well have taken notes which have not survived (though he certainly did not do so in the ludicrous way in which Salieri is depicted taking dictation from Mozart in the film Amadeus).

In any case, the remaining movements—Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communio (Lux aeterna)—seem to be Süssmayr’s work, though they are close enough to Mozart’s style to make credible his assertion that he was working with notes from the master. By the time the Requiem was finally published as Mozart’s in 1800, rumors had long circulated about the complicity of other composers in its completion. At the request of the publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel, Süssmayr described his role, explaining that everything from the verse “judicandus homo reus” (the third line of the Lacrimosa) was his own, though it had been his idea to repeat Mozart’s Kyrie fugue in the closing Communion “to give the work greater uniformity.” Whether or not this decision grew out of conversations with Mozart regarding the overall design of his score, it was, in any case, a normal procedure in Viennese Mass compositions of the day.

We shall probably never know to what degree Süssmayr made use of Mozart’s sketches for later movements; most sketches as may have existed seem to have been destroyed by Constanze in order to maintain the fiction that her husband actually completed the Requiem himself. (The surviving Requiem manuscript, along with another manuscript containing all we have of Mozart’s sketches, were published in facsimile in 1991, the work’s 200th anniversary, allowing anyone interested in the question the opportunity to decide for himself.)

It is clear that Süssmayr was not Constanze’s first or even her second choice to finish her husband’s score, so we should probably be wary of putting too much stock in his claims that he had special information that was not available to other musicians in the Mozart circle. Still it was Süssmayr’s pious labors on behalf of his “unforgettable teacher” that have made it possible for us to hear performances of Mozart’s last musical conception.

About the Music
However much we may wish that Mozart had lived to complete the entire Requiem, we can be grateful for a performable version made possible through Süssmayr’s assiduous devotion. Still, many musicians over the years have noted infelicities in detail and elements that simply do not correspond to Mozart’s style, and several editors have undertaken to produce an improved version of the score. Among these, Robert Levin, one of the world’s leading Mozart authorities, has studied every aspect of Mozart’s work—harmonic usage, instrumentation, proportions in the planning of whole movements, etc.—for decades. Yet despite the sometimes radical nature of his edition, it is also carefully conservative in retaining as much as possible of the familiar version. He has altered the Lacrimosa somewhat and takes it into a brief fugue (unlike Süssmayr’s two simple chords) for Amen. He has corrected what he refers to as “tonal discrepancies” in the Sanctus and has reshaped the Hosanna fugue to follow the structural proportions of a genuine Mozart fugue (from the C-minor Mass). He has somewhat revised the later part of the Benedictus and the return to the Hosanna fugue, edited out what seem to be Süssmayr’s oversights in the later parts of the Agnus Dei, and adjusted the layout of the text in the fugue Cum sanctis tuis.

Compared to Mozart’s earlier Mass compositions, the Requiem is a work of somber and impressive beauty, darker in color, but rising to great heights of power and drama (as in the first two lines of the Lacrimosa, probably the last notes he ever penned), and soaring with the ineffable grace that was his, but clearly filled, as well, with the commitment of immediate and urgent personal expression.

Among the sad stories of Mozart’s last year is the frequently repeated notion that he was placed in a pauper’s grave and that no one attended the ceremony. This fact has been interpreted to mean that he had been largely forgotten by the time of his death.

These events happened, but the real explanation was overlooked for a long time. By a decree from the Emperor Joseph II, an educated man of the Enlightenment, all burials took place in common graves at a cemetery well outside the city. For the time, this was actually an advanced public health measure to prevent pollution of the water supply.

The funeral service took place in town early in the afternoon. That is where people came to pay their respects to the deceased (and we know from recent research that St. Stephen’s Cathedral was packed with all the leading musicians of the day, many of whom served as honorary pallbearers). Mozart’s funeral was as widely commemorated as anyone of the time. After 6 p.m.—by which time it would be dark and very cold on a December night—the bodies were carted several miles outside the city to the cemetery, put in a common grave, and covered with quicklime to speed the process of decomposition. Families did not go to the cemetery; it would have been too cold and unsafe to walk, and it would have cost several week’s wages to hire a carriage for the trip.