Michael Haydn’s Requiem—like the composer himself—has receded into the historical mists. But this astounding work heavily influenced Mozart’s own Requiem and is worthy of comparison with every other setting of the Mass for the Dead ever composed.

Michael Haydn

The 1984 film Amadeus brought to the general public’s attention that many minor composers of music—such as Antonio Salieri, the rival of Wolfgang Mozart depicted in the movie—have been forgotten by history. “This boy will cast us all into oblivion,” German composer Johann Adolf Hasse is said to have uttered upon witnessing a performance by the young Mozart. And Hasse was right. The great light of Mozart has dimmed to darkness the twinkling talents of his contemporaries.

Despite some exaggerated claims made for the oeuvres of such minor composers by their partisans, typically there are at least some bits and pieces worthy of being remembered, played, recorded, and heard occasionally. Even in the cases of Salieri and Hasse, decidedly second- or even third-rate composers, there are enjoyable orchestral and chamber works, sacred works and operas that one may listen to with pleasure.

Yet if none of Salieri’s or Hasse’s works achieves true greatness, those of a few other forgotten composers occasionally do. One such is Johann Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the famous Franz Josef Haydn. Born in the small Austrian village of Rohrau, Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806) followed his elder brother’s career path into the world of music, securing for himself at the age of twenty-five the post of Kappellmeister, a position he held for forty-three years until his death. Michael Haydn was a contemporary of his Mozart (1756-1791), composed in the same classical style, and produced roughly the same number of works as the great master.

Yet no full-length biography of Michael Haydn has ever been appeared in the English language, and perhaps at best merely a quarter of his works has been recorded since the invention of the gramophone record. And this truly is a loss. Haydn’s best symphonies, for example, are the equal of the lesser (early- or middle-period) symphonies composed by his more famous brother and by Mozart. Evidence for this claim is that two symphonies now convincingly attributed to Michael Haydn were long thought to be the work of Mozart. Also, the casual collector may wonder why among Mozart’s numbered symphonies, one through forty-one, there exists no Symphony No. 37. The answer is that Mozart thought one of Haydn’s symphonies so worthy that he composed a slow introduction for its first movement; the complete manuscript was found among Mozart’s scores, and, such was the quality of the piece, that credit for the entire work was erroneously bestowed upon Mozart.

Michael Haydn also produced many concertos, serenades, dances and marches, string quartets and quintets, and solo keyboard works. His largest output was in the realm of sacred music: antiphons, hymns, psalms, graduals, canticles and cantatas, offertories and oratorios, motets and masses. Especially esteemed by Mozart and his peers were these liturgical compositions; Michael’s brother Josef even thought them to be superior to his own (monumental) contributions to the genre. It was here, then, in the realm of sacred music that the younger Haydn left his mark, both in his lifetime and beyond.

Among the some fifty Masses composed by Haydn are two Masses for the Dead (a third until recently was spuriously attributed to the composer). The latter of these Requiems, in B-flat major (known as “MH 838” in the most recent catalogue of the composer’s oeuvre), was left unfinished, though it contains some excellent music; the former Requiem, in C minor, is a complete setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. This Requiem is known as the “Missa pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundo” (Mass for the death of Archbishop Siegmund), as it was written for the funeral of Salzburg’s Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach, an eager patron of the musical arts. Completed on New Year’s Eve of 1771, a mere two weeks after the archbishop’s death, Haydn also composed the work in the shadow of the death of his infant daughter—his only child—in January of the same year.

Among the court musicians playing Haydn’s Requiem at the funeral of the Archbishop were none other than the fifteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father, Leopold. Though separated by more than eighteen years in age, Mozart and Haydn soon became friends, and the younger man admired the older composer’s work. Once when Haydn was too ill to fulfill a commission from the archbishop to compose a set of six duos for violin and viola, Mozart wrote the remaining two pieces so that Haydn would still get his fee.

When Mozart received the mysterious commission to write a Death Mass twenty years later, in the last year of his life, he turned to Michael Haydn’s Requiem as a model. Such a procedure was not unusual for Mozart: “A born competitor,” one musicologist opines, “Mozart delighted in taking a particular idea or piece by another composer as his model and then pointedly improving on it.” This technique was brilliantly incorporated into the aforementioned Amadeus in an imagined scene in which Mozart turns a march by Salieri into the music for what is perhaps the most famous aria he ever wrote, “Non più andrai.” In the real world, Mozart clearly fashioned his famous aria “Martern aller Arten” after an aria by Johann Christian Bach. This kind of borrowing and improving upon was a common practice among composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Compare the video recordings below of these two Requiems. The very opening of both works are similar in conception and mood; the end of Mozart’s Introit sounds much like parts of the Kyrie Eleison by Haydn (5:15-5:30 in the Mozart, and at 1:45-1:55 and again at 5:30-6:00 and 33:00 in the Haydn); similarly, listen to the similarities, at least of tone, of the opening the composer’s respective Dies Irae sections (8:10 in the Mozart; 6:38 in the Haydn); perhaps most strikingly, the opening of Haydn’s Domine Jesu Christe sounds nearly the same as Mozart’s (14:06 in the Haydn, 27:48 in the Mozart).

It should be remembered that Mozart died before he completed his Requiem; the version that we know today has been “completed” through the work of several lesser composers and pupils of Mozart at the behest of Mozart’s widow, Constanze.. Yet the sections cited above in the Mozart Requiem for comparison were either fully finished (the Introit) or sketched out (the Dies Irae and Domine Jesu Christi) by Mozart, so the evidence for the direct influence of Haydn’s work on Mozart is strong. One can find more congruences in the two works, including in the parts of Mozart’s Requiem written wholly or partly by those pupils and associates. It is fascinating then to consider how much these composers were influenced by Michael Haydn’s Requiem when filling in the gaps left by Mozart. Even more intriguing is this question: Did Michael Haydn himself —hitherto unsuspected as a contributor—have a hand in the completion of his friend’s great Death Mass? Perhaps even in recompense for Mozart’s kindness in completing his unfinished set of duos for the archbishop three years prior?

Today there are only a handful of recordings of Haydn’s Requiem, whereas there exist some 130 recorded renditions of Mozart’s Requiem. Though it would be too bold to claim that Haydn’s only complete setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead deserves the same honor accorded Mozart’s masterpiece, it is not too audacious to assert that Haydn’s Requiem is a great work and worthy to stand comparison with any such work in this genre ever composed.  But perhaps its very greatness has led to its obscurity. Supplanted by its superior successor, Haydn’s Requiem—like the composer himself—has receded into the historical mists. But both this piece and its composer deserve a more prominent place in music history and indeed in our musical memory.

This essay was first published here in December 2015.

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The featured image of Mozart is courtesy of Pixabay. The image of Michael Haydn is a drawing made in 1815 by Heinrich Eduard Winter. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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