Awakening Mozart: The Requiem’s Mysteries

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 28, 2023

Who completed Mozart’s unfinished Requiem? The masterpiece that we know today was the work of many hands. But who wrote which parts? And how much did Mozart actually write?

Waking Mozart: The Mystery of the Requiem ~ The Imaginative Conservative

“The last movement of his lips was an endeavor to indicate where the kettledrums should be used in his Requiem. I think I still hear the sound.” —Sophie Weber, Mozart’s sister-in-law, who nursed Mozart on his deathbed

No unfinished musical masterpiece fascinates us as much as Mozart’s Requiem. The picture of the thirty-five-year-old composer desperately writing the work on his deathbed, believing it to be both a harbinger of and a spur to his demise is simply too romantic of a story not to savor. Adding to the legend is that Mozart’s widow, Constanze, reported that her husband voiced the belief during his final illness that he had been poisoned. This idea was taken up by Alexander Pushkin in his play, Mozart and Salieri, which attributed the poisoning to Mozart’s Italian court rival, Antonio Salieri. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov turned the play into an opera, and Peter Shaffer seized on the idea as the basis for his play (and then movie) Amadeus, forever perpetuating the legend that a nefarious plot, and not an illness, was responsible for Mozart’s untimely demise.

While the question of “who or what killed Mozart?” constitutes the primary mystery in the mind of the general public, musicologists have long been fascinated instead with the puzzle of the composition of the Requiem. In mid-July of Mozart’s last year, 1791, a messenger appeared at the composer’s door, offering the commission of a death Mass. The man was an emissary of one Count Franz von Walsegg, an amateur musician who often secretly commissioned musical pieces, which he tried to pass off as his own. In this case, the count sought to provide a musical memorial for his recently-deceased young wife.

Early biographers of Mozart, including Constanze’s next husband, differ on the details of the commission. Constanze herself seems to be responsible for much of the confusion, as these biographers all interviewed her in preparing their accounts. The composer seems to have received a substantial advance with the promise of more money once the piece was finished. Mozart’s financial circumstances were never good, and surely the allure of an additional payment spurred him to endeavor through sickness to finish the work, despite his alleged forebodings about what it meant for his own fate.

Mozart, who worked on the Requiem from his bed on the day he died, failed to complete the piece. But he gave at least some indication as to how he intended to proceed to those in his musical circle. At least it was Constanze’s wish that everyone think this to be the case. Seeking the final payment from the commissioner, she sought to have other composers in her husband’s circle finish the piece, first Franz Jacob Freystädtler, then Joseph von Eybler and possibly Anton Stadtler, and finally Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

The role of Süssmayr in the Requiem’s completion remains highly controversial. Süssmayr was a minor composer, a student of Salieri who was firmly in the Italian’s camp, but who assisted Mozart as a copyist in his final months. There are rumors that Constanze and Süssmayr engaged in an ongoing affair during Mozart’s lifetime, and that Mozart was aware of the situation. Some have even suggested that one of Mozarts’ sons was named Franz Xaver after Süssmayr because he was the boy’s true father.

Whatever the truth about their romantic involvement, it seems that Constanze valued Süssmayr after Mozart’s death more because his handwriting resembled Mozart’s own. If the Requiem was the work of many hands, it was in the end Sussmayr’s hand that wrote out the parts on the autograph score left unfinished by the master himself. Constanze’s intent was to present the work as wholly that of her late husband to fool the Requiem’s commissioner (whose identity she and Mozart may have learned). Süssmayr therefore forged Mozart’s signature on the “completed” manuscript of the Mass.

By the time that Walsegg received the Requiem, the secret of Mozart’s authorship was probably widely known in Vienna. At least part of Mozart’s original, unfinished effort had been performed privately by his friends at the Theater an Der Wien as a tribute to the composer, and the Süssmayr-completed version was later given at a public concert for Constanze’s benefit. While Count Walsegg was premiering “his” Requiem Mass to an audience in the Austrian countryside, Constanze was doing everything she could to convince the Viennese that Süssmayr had simply written down the thoughts that were already finished in her husband’s head. She even claimed that Mozart sang some of the remaining sections to Süssmayr, the last sounds he supposedly made in this world being vocalizations of the timpani parts.

Süssmayr later took the opportunity to claim as much as possible of the Requiem as his own work, adding to the confusion about the authorship of the work’s various sections. Though it is sometimes clear—mainly by the mistakes he made with transpositions and voice-leading—where Süssmayr’s hand lay, scholars still debate where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins (not to mention Eybler, Stadler, and Freystädtler). Though Mozart’s original score survives, and we, if not Count Walsegg, can tell the master’s handwriting from those of Süssmayr and others, Constanze claimed that her husband had left bits of additional music on various scraps of paper for Süssmayr’s direction. Combine this with her insistence that Mozart had even sung the unfinished Requiem to Süssmayr, and the task of deciphering the contribution of Süssmayr becomes more problematic.

For his part, Süssmayr claimed that the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei were entirely his own creations. But conductor Kenneth Clark voices the opinion of many musicologists when he argues that “Sussmayr had neither the talent nor imagination” to write these movements in toto. Until the 1970s, conductors generally accepted the “Süssmayr version” as the Requiem as legitimate, and this was the only version the general public knew. But in that decade, musicologists began to fashion alternative version of the Requiem, attempting to remove Süssmayr either partially or entirely and to re-cast the missing sections with their own efforts, which were claimed to be truer to Mozartian style and perhaps Mozart’s intentions.

Though coming nearly two centuries after the master’s death, these latter-day composers were drawing on an early dissatisfaction with Süssmayr’s completion. As early as 1819, Sigismund Neukomm, a pupil of Josef and Michael Haydn, attempted to “finish” the piece by appending his own “Libera me” as the work’s final movement. One of the first, and most radical, modern attempts to excise Süssmayr was by Richard Maunder, who took Süssmayr at his word and stripped away entirely the Sanctus and Benedictus, though he retained the Agnus Dei since he discovered it quoted largely from an earlier Mozart Mass. Maunder also completed and orchestrated the fragment of a late Amen fugue that was found in the 1960s among Mozart’s works. Maunder, supported by musicologist Robert Levin and others, believe that Mozart intended it for the Requiem. By general agreement it has been placed at the end of the Sequenz, which provides the symmetry of having every major section conclude with a fugue. Christopher Hogwood was the first to record Maunder’s version of the Requiem.

Two other reconstructions include the Amen fugue but instead of excising Süssmayr, attempt to re-write him. The first of these is by scholar Duncan Druce, whose version was recorded by Roger Norrington; the second is by Robert Levin, whose version has been recorded by Martin Pearlman and Bernard Labadie. Less radical attempts simply to “fix” Sussmayr’s mistakes and minimize him where possible and to return to the work of Eybler and Freystädtler instead have been made: first, by H.C. Robbins Landon, whose version can be heard on recordings by Roy Goodman and by Bruno Weil; second, by Franz Beyer, whose version has been recorded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Conductor Christoph Spering produced an album that includes the full “Süssmayr version” and also Mozart’s pared-down autograph fragments, a stark listening experience like no other of these sections of the Requiem. Most recently, conductor Stephen Cleobury has released a recording that pairs the Süssmayr version with some of the more interesting attempts to re-work sections that were heavily the work of Süssmayr. Thus Cleobury presents Maunder’s Amen, Druce’s Benedictus, Levin’s Sanctus, and Michael Finnissy’s completion of the Lacrimosa. There have been other attempts at completion, and among the 170-plus versions of the Requiem, there are many instances of conductors making their own minor alterations to the Süssmayr version.

The issue of the validity of these latter-day versions of the Requiem continues to excite debate. “No matter what completion we perform or listen to,” musicologist Cliff Eisen writes, “it is Mozart’s meaning that we are looking for.” Though most musicians are critical of Süssmayr et alia’s contribution to some degree, the late scholar Stanley Sadie reflects one school of thought in saying: “I retain my obstinate preference for a version that originates in the Mozart circle in Vienna, and sounds like it, over one that originates in the late twentieth century, and sounds like it.”

The first page of Mozart’s score for the Requiem

Unfinished works by other great composers exist, of course; Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, for example, have also seen attempts at “completion” by musicologists. Even the vague sketches that Beethoven left for a Tenth Symphony have produced a realization of a first movement. But there is something deeper at work in the case of Mozart’s Requiem, something that continues to provoke anew efforts to finish it, and not only because there is a perceived need to cleanse the work of other composers’ contributions. By keeping alive the puzzle of Mozart’s deathbed creation, we are in a sense keeping Mozart himself alive, denying to ourselves that his magnificent opus is complete. We are in essence keeping guard over Mozart in a perpetual wake, refusing to bury “the miracle that God allowed to be born in Salzburg” and allowed to die too young in Vienna.

Mozart’s Requiem: The Süssmayr version and notes on authorship

  • I. Introit: Requiem Aeternam (written by Mozart)
  • II. Kyrie eleison (mostly written by Mozart; completed by some combination of Süssmayr, Eybler, Stadtler and Freystädtler)
  • III. Sequentia (Mozart wrote vocal parts and some instrumental lines; Süssmayr, Eybler, possibly Stadtler, and Freystädtler completed the orchestration )
    • Dies irae
    • Tuba mirum
    • Rex tremendae
    • Recordare
    • Confutatis
    • Lacrimosa (Mozart completed only the first eight bars; Süssmayr likely completed it)
  • IV. Offertorium (Mozart sketched out parts; completed by Süssmayr):
    • Domine Jesu Christe
    • Hostias et preces
  • V. Sanctus: (Süssmayr claimed sole authorship; likely based on Mozart’s instructions):
    • Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth (controversy rages about whether Mozart would have written “blaring music” in D major for a death Mass)
    • Benedictus (likely that Mozart wrote opening bars/main theme)
  • VI. Agnus Dei (Süssmayr claimed sole authorship; likely based on Mozart’s instructions):
  • VII. Communio: Lux aeterna (written by Süssmayr following Mozart’s instructions)

Note that Mozart also composed the first sixteen bars of an Amen fugue, not included in the Süssmayr version, that was likely intended for the Requiem.

This essay first appeared here in September 2013.

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The featured image is “The Last Hours of Mozart” (1860s) by Henry Nelson O’Neil, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity. The image of the first page of the manuscript of the Requiem is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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