Being there as Mozart dies

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Imagine you are a fly on the wall of Mozart’s home in Vienna 215 years ago. Wolfgang Amadeus has been in bed for a week with fever. He invites three friends to his bedside to sing parts of his unfinished Requiem. In the evening his condition suddenly worsens. Within hours he is dead.

Amid the grief, one musical puzzle needs to be solved. The master’s Requiem is lying incomplete, mostly in sketches. It could be left as an unfinished torso, a fragmentary testament to his genius. Alternatively, his pupils could fill in the gaps and pass off the completed work as Mozart’s. What would you do?

There has never been much mystery surrounding Mozart’s death on December 5 1791. The cause was registered as “severe military fever” but later described as rheumatic inflammatory fever. Far from expressing fateful premonitions, as embroidered accounts later suggested, Mozart’s letters in the preceding weeks are full of high spirits.

The real mystery of Mozart’s final hours concerns the Requiem. As the work resonates across the western world tomorrow, the anniversary of his death, audiences will recognise some of the most moving bars in all music. Few will be aware that Mozart penned less than 20 per cent of what they are hearing. The rest was cobbled together by others, so that his widow Constanze could claim a fee from the man who commissioned it. The standard edition is by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil who tried to fake Mozart’s signature on the autograph score. Modern musicologists have increasingly picked holes in Süssmayr’s edition and attempted their own.

The gap between what Mozart wrote and what is performed is one of classical music’s great conundrums. How honest is it to advertise “the Mozart Requiem” when the music conforms only to his barest outline? How valid are the attempts to complete it, from Süssmayr to 21st-century Mozart scholars?

Two performances tomorrow will attempt a novel answer to these questions. One, at St John’s Smith Square in London, will consist only of music that has been authenticated as Mozart’s – a 20-minute Requiem fragment. The other, at Canterbury Cathedral, will use the Requiem as a starting point for additions and commentaries by eight contemporary composers.

Together, they represent two extremes of approach that the modern musical world takes to the past. There’s the ultra-purist view, exemplified by Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players at St John’s, which says the honest approach is to confine yourself to what the composer left. And there’s the postmodern view, championed by Nicholas Cleobury and his Sounds New company at Canterbury, which says posterity should be free to do what it likes with a composer’s legacy.

Both sides hope to expose the Requiem’s elusive personality. Expert examination of the autograph score has revealed that Mozart completed only one movement, the introductory Requiem aeternam, and another, the Kyrie, in all but details of instrumentation. He wrote vocal parts and an instrumental thread for the six following numbers – the last of which, the Lacrymosa, breaks off completely after just eight bars. There are vocal parts and some clues about instrumentation for the Offertory. No autograph material exists for the final three sections – the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

And yet most performances today include fully composed and orchestrated versions of everything. “What we don’t know is to what extent Süssmayr was working with sketches that were subsequently lost, and how much music he added of his own,” says Nicholas Kenyon, author of The Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart, who recently inspected the autograph score in Vienna. “Some parts of the Süssmayr version fit stylistically, but there are too many places where the vocal
and orchestral parts sound thick, and the voice progressions are unsatisfactory.”

It’s this dissatisfaction that has fuelled the modern drive to establish a more “authentic” completion of the Requiem. And yet, in the words of the new Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, “it is far from certain that these recent completions represent technical, aesthetic and stylistic ‘improvements’ over Süssmayr”.

Hence the urge to treat the Requiem as an experiment. Bamert and Cleobury may follow opposite paths, but what they have in common is an acknowledgement that the Requiem is a puzzle.

Bamert has conducted the Süssmayr version many times, believing “it’s better than anybody else’s – but it’s still not the real thing. A Requiem is about death, and when you look at Mozart’s score and see it breaking off in the Lacrymosa, you can imagine Mozart dying at that very point.”

“Hearing it in concert makes it seem even more dramatic: it just runs out of music and suddenly there’s an incredible silence. Doing it this way brings the Requiem closer to death than Süssmayr’s version, because you are actually there when Mozart dies. He wrote what was most important to him and had no time to fill in the rest.”

Cleobury’s Canterbury performance, by contrast, recognises that history is full of composers re-writing and completing others’ music they admired: Mozart did so in his arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. The difference in Canterbury – a town visited by the nine-year-old Mozart in 1765 – is that the task has been spread among eight composers.

Under the umbrella of “Mozart Now”, a programme of lectures, workshops and concerts funded by Canterbury City Council, this 21st-century take on the Requiem will open with a blast of new music on the organ. One commentary piece is electronic. The whole venture runs the risk of unevenness.

But all eight composers avow a sympathy with the past. The best known is Dominic Muldowney, who has written new versions of the Sanctus and Benedictus. He says the project chimes with his own musical outlook “because I’ve spent my life as a composer working from a model and taking it somewhere else. My music is by nature referential. There are musical mountains between me and Mozart: when I look back I feel I have to get past them to reach him.

“The fact that we’ve kidded ourselves for 200 years about [the authorship of] the Requiem shows what lengths we’re prepared to go for scraps of Mozart. There’s a funny tension in the bits that he completed. He manages to be progressive without throwing the rulebook away – behaving like Bach while starting to sound like Schubert. It’s as if he’s saying ‘I’m going to write a passionate Requiem, but the grammar will be absolutely correct’. That’s why Mozart is such a great composer: he can have one cake while eating another.”

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