The Discover Concerts are always such a joy for a person like me. I’m the kind of person who enjoys something even more when I know the intricate details about it. I’m anticipating this particular Discover Concert because I know there are lots of details to cover. On Thursday, LACO will be performing Mozart’s Requiem. Since it’s a choral piece, LACO will be joining forces with the Los Angeles Master Chorale (and their artistic director, Grant Gershon). The piece will feature the magnificent solo voices of Alison King (soprano), Emily Fons (alto), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Aubrey Allicock (bass). But that’s not all; two other guests, actors John Sloan and JD Cullum will have very important roles to play. They will be the embodiment of our composer, Mozart, and his imagined antagonist, Antonio Salieri. I don’t know exactly how the evening will be structured, but the possibilities are very exciting!
Mozart’s death in December of 1791 cut short a very productive life. Just shy of his 36th birthday, Mozart had written somewhere around 600 works including 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos and nearly two-dozen string quartets. The composer’s last years were, at times, extremely productive. In the summer of 1788, he completed his three final symphonies in less than two months. He wrote operas including Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute. And in his last year, Mozart received an anonymous commission for a Requiem mass. This final piece, however, was left incomplete at his death.
The Requiem was commissioned anonymously by a man named Count Franz Walsegg, who wished to commemorate his wife’s death. The whole affair was shrouded in mystery. 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. We think that Walsegg used the emissary probably because he wanted to pass the work off as one of his own. He was something of an amateur composer and a piece like this would have made him look very talented, indeed! Mozart was devoted to the completion of the work, and desperate for the second payment (the Mozarts were chronically in financial straits), but his health did not cooperate. He suffered with an illness in September, but continued to work. In late November, he became too sick to continue. After ailing for two weeks, Mozart died on December 5th.
Mozart had completed 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 children. Turning to different composers to complete the unfinished work, Constanze found only one man who would agree to the subterfuge of passing it off as Mozart’s work. Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s long-time assistant, completed the work in 1792.
Süssmayr did an admirable job, especially for his skill level, but some critics have mentioned its problems, among them, lackluster musical ideas and errors in harmony. But over the years, listeners have become used to it, accepting it as Mozart’s final masterpiece. Mozart’s incomplete score seems to have provided more than enough raw material for Süssmayr to put together something worthwhile, but there were still some nagging doubts. Could it have been done differently, maybe even better? What if we had just a little bit more information? These thoughts lingered for more than a hundred and seventy years. But then there was a break in the case.
In the 1960s, a sketch for an Amen fugue was discovered among Mozart’s papers. Many musicologists believe that Mozart meant for this piece 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 new completions of Mozart’s Requiem in the twentieth century. Levin’s version—the one LACO will be playing this week—retains Süssmayr’s basic structure, but addresses some of the problematic aspects of style and orchestration in Süssmayr’s version. 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, as well as some incomplete cantata movements by Bach.
The first few bars of the Lacrimosa, which are the only bars of that movement Mozart completed, are easily some of the most achingly beautiful in all of music. I know them well because I have sung them many times. As a singer who spent many, many hours in choirs, I have sung both Süssmayr’s version of the Requiem and Levin’s completion. I was first introduced to Levin’s version when I was in college, and I was struck by its boldness and its beauty. The Amen fugue is not an easy piece, but it’s absolutely breathtaking and exciting. I am delighted to experience this work again in LACO’s Discover Concert. The combination of LACO, the LA Master Chorale, the soloists, the actors, and of course, our beloved Jeffrey Kahane, will make this Discover Concert one of our best yet. I, for one, will not miss it.