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program notes: mozart's requiem

Saturday January 26, 2013
Sunday January 27, 2013

Mozart Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major


Mozart Requiem in D minor


Mozart died in December of 1791, just two months shy of his 36th birthday. He had accomplished a great deal in his short life, writing in the neighborhood of 600 works including 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos and nearly two-dozen string quartets. The composer’s last years were, at times, extremely productive. He wrote operas including Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, and in the summer of 1788, he completed his three final symphonies in less than two months. In his last year, Mozart received an anonymous commission for a Requiem mass. Unfortunately, this piece of music remained unfinished at the composer’s death.

Admitted to his lodge in 1784, Mozart was a Freemason — a fraternal organization that emphasizes charity, morality and brotherhood. Many of the works from his last years draw upon Masonic symbolism or imagery (especially The Magic Flute), and even the key signature choices of these works underscore the significance of the Masons’ lore.

For many years, Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major was the least discussed of Mozart’s final three symphonies, falling into the shadow of both the G-minor Symphony (No. 40) and the “Jupiter” Symphony (No. 41). That is unfortunate because Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 is a masterpiece of the Classical style in terms of its structure, its development of musical ideas and its variation of themes. It begins with a slow introduction that features musical ideas that appear in the ensuing movement, an interesting and forward – looking gambit that makes the sections feel interconnected. This opening has its majestic moments, and when the Allegro finally begins, it feels like a grand arrival. The second movement is very sweet, with a gentle give-and-take between winds and strings. This movement is delicate and intricate, and Mozart seems to have lavished special attention on the textures of the strings and winds.

The third movement is notable because it features a folk melody—a Ländler—in the trio section of the minuet (played by clarinets). Mozart’s finale is comprised of a vivacious theme and variations of sorts. This theme is almost a country dance, written in a style that departs from the serious and stately opening of the Symphony. It is perhaps an homage to Haydn, since it seems to mimic his lively monothematic closing movements. Mozart’s considerable skill in variation, and the perpetual motion of the movement, drives forcefully, but joyfully, to the final note.

Mozart’s Requiem was commissioned anonymously by Count Franz Walsegg to commemorate his wife’s death. Walsegg sent a mysterious emissary to make a deal with Mozart: The anonymous benefactor would pay half of his generous fee up front, and pay Mozart the other half when the work was completed. Walsegg used the emissary probably because he wanted to pass the work off as one of his own and bolster his reputation as a composer. Mozart worked hard on the piece, evidently devoted to its completion (and the rest of the money, as Mozart was chronically in financial straits). Although he suffered with an illness in September, he continued to work, but in late November, he became too sick to continue. After ailing for two weeks, Mozart died on December 5.

Mozart managed to complete the opening movement of the work, the Requiem aeternam. He had written out the vocal parts of the Kyrie, but left just sketches for the orchestral parts. The Sequence and Offertory were in a similar condition, although he composed the Sequence only as far as the eighth measure of the Lacrimosa. The rest of the movements—Sanctus, Benedictus, Hosanna, Agnus Dei—were not composed. This left Mozart’s wife, Constanze, in a bit of a bind. Without Walsegg’s second payment, Constanze struggled to support herself and her two children. Turning to different composers to complete the unfinished work, Constanze eventually settled on Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s long-time assistant, who completed the work in 1792.

Although some critics have cited problems with Süssmayr’s work, including lackluster musical ideas and errors in harmony, it is the Süssmayr completion—among others attempted later—that most people know, and indeed, love. Mozart’s incomplete score seems to have provided more than enough raw material for Süssmayr to put together something worthwhile. In the 1960s, Mozart’s sketches of an Amen fugue were discovered, and many musicologists believe that this was meant to be included in the Requiem after the Lacrimosa. Robert D. Levin, an American musicologist and pianist, is one of a handful of people who attempted a new completion of Mozart’s Requiem in the 20th century and whose version the Orchestra presents tonight. Levin’s version retains Süssmayr’s basic structure, but addresses some of the problematic aspects of style and orchestration in Süssmayr’s completion. Perhaps the most important change is the reworking of the Lacrimosa to accommodate Levin’s Amen fugue, which was written from the sketch. Levin, an expert on Mozart’s work, has completed a number of fragments Mozart left unfinished, and was inspired to complete some unfinished cantata movements by Bach as well.

In his musical ideas for the Requiem, it seems Mozart also drew inspiration from Bach, as evidenced by the use of polyphony in general, and of fugues in particular. It also seems that Handel was in the forefront of his mind, as Mozart had made some revisions to Handel’s Messiah in 1789 for the musician and diplomat, Baron van Swieten. There is an unmistakable similarity between Mozart’s main theme for the Kyrie fugue and Handel’s chorus “And with his stripes we are healed” from Messiah. Of the movements that Süssmayr composed from scratch, most recognize the Agnus Dei as approaching Mozart’s high level of quality. At the end of the piece, some of the music from the opening returns. The piece then comes full circle, ending where it began, like the never-ending pattern of birth and death. Mozart’s Requiem, in sum, features elements of old styles like the fugues, with new flourishes like the unique use of the soloists. Near the end of his life, Mozart’s style was changing and evolving, but because of his unfortunate early death, we will never know what musical course he might have charted.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD