Mozart's Life And His Requiem Mass

In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life, he composed his famous Requiem in D under such circumstances that legend says he had a premonition of his own impending death.

It was a work that he was destined never to finish -- Mozart was absolutely sure of that. Some say that he even suspected his impending death from the moment he first received the commission. In any event, the composer rushed to complete his Requiem before he drew his last breath and, therefore, beat Mr. Death at his own game.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was only 35, but he had lived the equivalent of many lifetimes. He was barely six years old when his father, Leopold, had dragged his son and daughter over the length and breadth of Europe, showing off their considerable musical talents to anyone who would contribute to their coffers. When little Wolfie sat on the chair before the harpsichord, his feet didn't even touch the floor.

Since those early days, Mozart had been working steadily, not only as a composer but also as a conductor and performer. He was one of a new breed, a musician who did not depend on royal patronage to survive. He was the first of the free-lance composers, gathering commissions on his own to write operas, symphonies, concertos, and other works. He organized concerts for his own benefit and performed his own piano concertos as part of the program. He seldom taught music -- one of the steadiest ways a musician could earn a living in those days -- simply because he didn't have the patience to work with musicians less skillful than himself. He had far more pressing things to do.

People like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- people larger than life -- leave great legends behind them. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart's last major work, the "Requiem in D," is rampant with that kind of myth -- highly romantic to be sure, but largely untrue.

All through his adult life, Mozart had powerful feelings that he would die early. He also tended to be superstitious, so when a mysterious messenger arrived bearing a letter asking him to compose a Requiem Mass -- a mass for the dead -- Mozart took it as an omen of his own imminent departure from the world. What made the episode even more mysterious is that the letter was unsigned.

On the afternoon of the eve of his death, after three of his friends arrived to comfort the dying composer, Mozart conducted an impromptu rehearsal of the completed parts of the Requiem, with himself and each man taking one of the parts. Then, as the group began singing the opening bars of the Lacrimosa, Mozart broke down completely and the rehearsal was aborted.

So goes the myth of the famous "Requiem in D" and its composer's last day. Throughout the years the tale has been embellished and added to by countless scribes. The truth behind the composition of the Requiem is much more difficult to discover than the folklore. Only two facts are known for certain. The first is that the commission for the work was delivered by an unknown party. The second was that Mozart died before he had completed even half of the Requiem Mass. But here is the best guess at what actually happened.

The story begins in July 1791. There is a knock at Mozart's door. A perfect stranger hands him a letter asking if he would be interested in writing a Requiem Mass, his fee for composing the work, and a possible delivery date. Would he be kind enough send his reply to a certain address?

After consulting with his wife, Constanze, Mozart accepted the commission, quoted a price, but said that he could not promise a date for delivery. Lately Mozart had been rather sickly and not able to work a great deal.

Some days later, the stranger reappeared bearing a fat bag of money for the composer. He said that Mozart's price had been so reasonable that his employer had promised a hefty bonus, and that he should complete the work as quickly as possible.

Today, we can be fairly certain that Mozart's unknown patron was Count Franz Walsagg, an amateur musician who often commissioned works from well-known composers and passed them off as his own. Walsagg wanted the Mass as a memorial to his wife who had passed away the year before. The mysterious messenger was probably Walsagg's steward, Franz Anton Leutgeb.

Mozart began composing. After he had finished about 40 pages, he laid the work aside to concentrate on completing his Italian opera, "La clemenza di Tito" and the German singspeil, "The Magic Flute". When these were done, he returned to the Requiem.

All during this time, Mozart was getting sicker and he began thinking that the end was near. However, he didn't believe he was dying from any ordinary disease. He firmly believed that he was being poisoned. Constanze tried to soothe her husband and convince him that it was all in his imagination, but Mozart would not be comforted. He became increasingly depressed and melancholy. And he started spending more time with his unfinished Requiem, in spite of his rapidly failing health. It became an obsession.

On his last day on earth, Mozart could have hardly been able to sing any part of the Requiem, or even work on it very much. His swollen body would have caused him excruciating pain. In fact, he was barely able to move. At about one o'clock in the morning, on December 5, 1791, he turned his face to the wall and died.

Constanze, who was now in a desperate financial condition, turned the unfinished Requiem manuscript over to Mozart's pupil, Franz Xavier Süssmayr. She knew that Mozart and Süssmayr had often discussed the Requiem and that the composer had left instructions on how he wanted certain passages completed. The final result was about half Mozart and half Süssmayr.

Constanze presented the manuscript to Walsagg a year after Mozart died, but not before she had made a copy of the music. This was fortunate because the Requiem might have been lost to the world if Walsagg had claimed authorship. As it was, he could hardly do that since Mozart's composition was already being performed by others. So he decided to sue as one whose rights of ownership had been violated. Constanze headed off the attempt with borrowed money to buy the rights back from Walsagg. The thwarted plagiarizer could do nothing else but comply.

And so Mozart's last major composition -- and probably one of the most popular things he ever wrote -- was finally completed. The composition of the "Requiem in D" may be sheathed in legend, but its truth is apparent to everyone who basks in its beauty.

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