Lesson 7

1791: Mozart’s Unfinished Requiem

What were the circumstances of Mozart’s life in 1791, his last year? Why did he compose the Requiem?

Mozart’s End

Our last lesson concluded with an examination of Mozart’s development as a composer of symphonies by focussing on the last three he composed. Lesson 7 begins by describing how Mozart’s fortunes were improving in his last year. We’ll then discuss the commission process for the Requiem before examining several movements of this, Mozart’s last — albeit incomplete — composition. Today’s lesson closes by discussing the controversial circumstances surrounding Mozart’s death.

1791: Mozart’s Last Year

As we’ve seen, in the autumn of 1790 Mozart’s financial condition had become desperate. By 1791, however, his fortunes began turning around and, during its first three months, he published several works, including his last piano concerto. He also received manuscript rights for 30 court dances (an early biography records that he wrote on the receipt, now lost, “Too much for what I did, too little for what I could do”). In April he was appointed assistant to the aging Hofmann, who was Kapellmeister of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

During the summer Mozart received the commission for the Requiem and, in September, he had two operatic premieres: La clemenza di Tito, on the 6th and, on the 30th, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The first was composed for the coronation of the new emperor, Leopold II, while the second was written for the suburban Viennese Theater auf der Wieden. His letters of October 7 and 8 to his wife describe the latter’s success:

I’ve just come back from the opera; — it was full as ever . . .But what makes me really happy is the Silent applause! — one can feel how the opera is rising and rising.

Even “Salieri (Mozart’s main rival) listened and watched with great attention, and from the overture all the way through to the final chorus there was not a single number that did not elicit from him a ‘bravo’ or ‘bello’ (Quoted in Spaethling, p. 439-442).

Until recently, romanticized notions and guesswork have long clouded the details of the final chapter of Mozart’s life. And, thus, an aura of mystery has traditionally hung over the circumstances of Mozart’s final composition, the Requiem, as well as his death. Along with others, the noted scholar H. C. Robbins Landon has uncovered much in his recent and completely absorbing book, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (New York: Schirmer Books, 1988).

So, now that history is reasonably certain of the circumstances surrounding both of these controversies, let’s take a look at some of the basic facts.

Mozart’s Career Comes Full Circle

Mozart’s first position for the Archbishop of Salzburg was as a member of the court and church orchestra and as organist. In April of 1791 he was appointed to another church position as assistant to the Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Although this was an unpaid position, it did put Mozart first in line to become Kapellmeister. Safe to say, had Mozart outlived Hofmann, the course of church music would surely have been different.

The Commission for the Requiem

It appears that Franz, Count Walsegg-Stuppach planned to commemorate the anniversary of his young wife’s death by anonymously commissioning Mozart to compose the Requiem. Walsegg, an enthusiastic music lover and an amateur performer on cello and flute, routinely commissioned compositions, copied them in his own hand, and passed them off as his own, which is what he might have intended here. In any case, the time was right for Mozart to undertake this large commission. We’ve seen that he’d recently been appointed to a position at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Thus it may have seemed appropriate to seize the opportunity to write a large-scale piece of church music. In addition, since Mozart was still encumbered by his somewhat precarious financial position, he surely was grateful for the extravagant initial deposit.

According to Robbins Landon, Mozart probably composed the Requiem between October 8 and November 20, an incredibly short period of time even for someone who normally wrote quickly. In that same period he took at least four to five days to compose a Freemason cantata, K. 623, and spent two days fetching Constanze from Baden. Thus Mozart’s share of the Requiem, amounting to 99 pages, was completed in little more than one month. And his failing health probably meant that he wrote more slowly than normal!

The beginning sections of the Requiem were performed at the Church of St. Michael in Vienna within days of Mozart’s death. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, advisor to Empress Maria Theresa and supporter of both Mozart and Beethoven, arranged the first complete performance as a benefit for Mozart’s widow on 2 January 1793. Various early biographers and chroniclers have related the story of the Requiem, its commission, the extent of Mozart’s composition, and the work’s completion, with conflicting data. But a recently discovered letter from Constanze to an old family friend, in addition to Robbins Landon’s work, clarifies the picture:

. . . Mozart never thought of beginning a Requiem, and often said to me that he undertook this work with the greatest pleasure, since that [i.e., church music] was his favorite genre, and he was going to do it and compose it with such fervor that his friends and enemies would study it after his death; “if I can only stay alive that long; for this must be my masterpiece and my swan-song.” And he did compose it with great fervor; when he felt weak, however, Süssmayr often had to sing . . . and thus Süssmayr received a real lesson from Mozart. And I can hear Mozart, when he often said to Süssmayr: “Ey — there you stand like a duck in a thunderstorm; you won’t understand that for a long time,” took the quill and wrote down the principal parts which, I suppose, were too much for Süssmayr (Quoted in Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, pgs.161-62).

Although Mozart died before finishing the Requiem, his students (especially Süssmayr), at the request of Constanze, completed her husband’s composition.

Salieri’s Fate

In November 1823, Salieri attempted to commit suicide. Schindler, Beethoven’s scribe, was only one of many to perpetuate the rumor of Salieri’s involvement in Mozart’s death:

Salieri is again in a very bad way. He is quite ruined. He has fantasies that he was responsible for Mozart’s death and gave him poison. This is true — for he wants to confess it . . . (Quoted in Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, p. 173).

The Completion of Mozart’s Unfinished Manuscript


Page 1 of the Unfinished Requiem Manuscript

After Mozart’s death, Constanze first gave the unfinished manuscript to F. J. Freystädtler and Joseph Eybler, a friend of Haydn’s and protege of Mozart’s. Mozart apparently had considered the latter men more talented than Süssmayr. But, since Süssmayr’s handwriting was most like Mozart’s, he supplied most of the additions to Mozart’s original unfinished manuscript. He even forged Mozart’s “signature” in the upper-right corner of the first page, stupidly adding the wrong date: “[1]792,” the year after Mozart had died!


Enlarged View of the Upper Right hand Corner of the Manuscript, with the Forged Signature and Wrong Date

The plot surrounding the manuscript thickens further. Süssmayr, traditionally credited with completing the Requiem, was apparently Mozart’s last choice to complete the work. He also had fewer ties to Mozart than he had to Mozart’s rival, court composer Salieri. Salieri had earlier hired him to play violin in the Imperial Royal Court Chapel. Thus we can see at least one source for Salieri’s apparent jealousy of, and enmity toward, Mozart, so effectively exploited in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, in the circumstances surrounding the completion of Mozart’s final work.

Mozart’s Death

And what of the controversy surrounding Mozart’s death, anyway? On New Year’s Eve of 1791, less than a month after his demise, a Berlin newspaper suggested the possibility that he had been poisoned. Was Salieri, the jealous rival of Mozart, involved, as Amadeus suggests? Salieri himself told Ignaz Moscheles, a pupil of Beethoven, that “I can assure you on my word of honor that there is no truth in that absurd rumor; you know, that I am supposed to have poisoned Mozart. But no, it’s malice, pure malice . . .”

However, the City of Vienna Registry of Deaths records that Mozart died from acute miliary fever (hitziges Frieselfieber) on December 5. In addition, Mozart’s attending doctors, Closset and Sallaba, were no less than two of the most famous professors of medicine at that time. Guiseppe Carpani, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Italian biographer, wrote in 1824:

Mozart was poisoned? Yes? Where is the evidence? Useless to ask. There is no evidence, and it is also impossible to find any, because Mozart caught an infectious rheumatic fever which not only attacked him but also slaughtered all those others who caught it during those days (Quoted in Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, p. 174).

But if Mozart was not poisoned, what caused his death? First of all, he was seriously ill at several points in his life, including his childhood, and thus his constitution was generally weak. In a technical article published in 1984, Dr. Peter J. Davies summarized all of Mozart’s illnesses and their effects, and concluded that he died of purely natural causes — not Salieri’s, or anyone else’s, poison.

The second edition (1808) of Niemetschek’s biography of Mozart contains the following epitaph, written by one of Mozart’s fellow Viennese composers:

A composer, by no means unfamous and living in Vienna, said to a colleague at Mozart’s death, with much truth and uprightness: “Of course it’s too bad about such a great genius, but it’s good for us that he’s dead. Because if he had lived longer, really the world would not have given a single piece of bread for our compositions” (Quoted in Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, p. 171).

Haydn underestimated by far when he said “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years!”

The Basset Horn and the Clarinet

Basset horns are alto-range clarinets but with narrower bores, thinner walls and lower pitch than the standard clarinet. Mozart took one of his closest musician-friends, the clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler, with him to Vienna for the premiere of Don Giovanni. He had Stadler in mind when he wrote not only the clarinet parts to his operas and symphonies, but also the great Clarinet Concerto, of which you’ll enjoy listening to the transcendent second movement.

The Requiem — A Closer Look

The Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, is the traditional Catholic mass, said or sung, at burial services. Its name comes from the opening words of the Introitus, or first section: “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord). The liturgical structure is like the normal mass except that, because the Requiem is a funeral mass, the joyful sections (the Gloria and Credo) are omitted, and a Tract and the sequence Dies Irae replaces the Alleluia. Musical settings of the Requiem date all the way back to plainsong settings from medieval times and continue to this day.

The following chart summarizes Mozart’s and Süssmayr’s contributions to the Requiem:

Section Composer

Introitus Mozart (complete)
Kyrie Mozart (complete)
Dies irae through
Confutatis Mozart: voice/organ parts, indications for instruments
Süssmayr: completion of orchestration
Lacrimosa Mozart: measures 1-8 sketched
Süssmayr: completion of meas. 1-8, all of meas. 9-30
Offertorium Mozart: sketched voice/organ parts
Süssmayr: completed orchestration
Sanctus through
Agnus Dei Süssmayr (complete)
Communio Mozart (restatement of part of Introitus and entire Kyrie
with new text)
Mozart’s Use of D Minor

Mozart’s works in D minor share a quality of somber dignity, if not fear and agitation. D minor is the principal key, for example, of Don Giovanni; its Overture begins with the same threatening music to which the statue of the Commendatore later haunts the Don. The well-known D Minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, with its agitated rhythms, is another dark and somewhat foreboding piece. The splendid Kyrie, K. 341, also in D minor, is now thought by some to date from early in 1791, during which he also worked on the Requiem. Thus for Mozart to choose D minor as the principal key of the Requiem, and the tonality of its most intense segments, is not unexpected.

Although the Requiem begins quietly and broodingly, the full intensity of chorus and orchestra appears early on. The Gregorian melody quoted first by the solo soprano is the psalm tone known as the Tonus peregrinus, paired with words from Psalm 65: “Hymns are offered to thee, O God, in Zion . . . ”

Mozart concludes the opening movement with a masterful double fugue. His use of Baroque polyphonic techniques can be seen in other late works, too; for example, the fugal Overture to The Magic Flute, and later in Act II the contrapuntal elaboration of a Lutheran chorale in the scene with the two guards. The first subject, or theme, of the Kyrie, with its characteristic descending diminished seventh, is another link to the past. The melody not only occurs in keyboard music already in the 17th century, but appears as the theme of “And with his stripes,” one of only two strictly fugal movements in Handel’s Messiah. Mozart indeed knew Handel’s oratorios, for he re-orchestrated several, including Messiah.


Mozart’s Use of D minor

Mozart’s use of D minor

The Dies irae begins the Sequence with shattering force. Each of the subsequent sections contrasts sharply, from the moderate Tuba mirum to the imposing and stately Rex tremendae, the calm close of which leads into the similarly milder Recordare. The composition proceeds from here to the biting Confutatis and then to the sorrowfully sighing Lacrimosa. The Offertory is divided into two parts, Domine Jesu and Hostias. Both sections conclude with the same elaborate fugue, which shows Mozart’s indebtedness to J. S. Bach.

Süssmayr’s wrote the Benedictus, which, with its fortissimo trumpet-and-trombone chords, is too powerful for the more gentle music of the solo quartet. This, in addition to the Sanctus’ inept counterpoint, reveals the limits of Süssmayr’s abilities.

For the Communio Süssmayr repeated the music of the Introitus (from measure 19 onward) and the fugal Kyrie, but with a new text. Constanze claimed that in doing so he was following Mozart’s instruction. On 8 February 1800, however, Süssmayr wrote the following to the publisher Breitkopf: “I have taken the liberty to repeat the fugue in the verse cum sanctis etc. in order to give the work more unity.” He specifically avoids mentioning any instructions from Mozart, and claimed the idea for himself. One would think that, especially when dealing with the publisher, he would have tried to emphasize — and perhaps even overemphasize — the extent of Mozart’s role in the composition of the Requiem. And yet it is precisely here that he fails to mention Mozart at all, adding even more fuel to the controversy.

Let’s now take a brief look at the Requiem’s instrumentation.


Mozart conceived his Requiem Mass for 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, chorus, and four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass).

The trombones largely are not independent parts, but double the alto, tenor, and bass choral parts. For centuries the trombone had been associated with church music, and Mozart consistently included the trombone as a doubling instrument in much of his other church music. It had not yet become a standard member of the orchestra, however, and thus is not included in any of his symphonies. He did also use the trombone in three operas, however, to represent supernatural or demonic forces. Listen carefully to the voice of Neptune in Act III, Scene X of Idomeneo, the return of the Commendatore in Act II, Scene XVI of Don Giovanni, and the Overture to Magic Flute.

The basset horn is an alto-range version of the modern clarinet. In addition to its inclusion in the Requiem, Mozart used it in several operas (The Abduction from the Seraglio, La Clemenza di Tito, and The Magic Flute), but also in his Masonic music, where it was connected with ritual.

Moving Forward

No matter the health of Mozart at the time he worked on the Requiem, or the degree to which he instructed Süssmayr, the Requiem appealed to Mozart’s religious instincts. Its vivid text stimulated his musical imagination to create a deeply personal work of genius. Lesson 8, which concludes our course, begins by giving more background on Mozart’s death as recorded in various contemporary accounts. We’ll then examine a few of the myths that arose immediately after and over the 200 some odd years since his death before taking a look at the “Mozart effect.”

Assignment : Mozart’s Unfinished Requiem

One of the things that I always find fascinating in music with words is whether or not the composer tries to express the meaning of the words in the mood or in the effect of the music. A more technical phrase might be “tone painting.” Probably you’ll have already purchased a recording of the Requiem, which will include the text in both Latin and in an English translation. Listen to each movement and see if Mozart tries to express the meaning of the words in the music that is used to set those words. A good start might be the “Dies Irae.” While listening, be sure to realize that some movements will suggest the meaning or mood of the words more than others will.

Lesson 8: Mozart From 1791 to 2001

  • How do the earliest biographies of Mozart describe him?
  • How was his life and music regarded in the decades after his untimely death?
  • What were some of the rumors that began to circulate shortly after his death? Why is Mozart the most popular composer in modern times, and what is the lasting legacy of his genius?
  • What is the “Mozart effect”?

2 thoughts on “Lesson 7

  1. Does anyone know where I can find an enlarged view of Mozarts handwriting – the part where he writes “Requiem”?!

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