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There’s nothing like a juicy tale to humanize the appeal of rarified art. One of the most intriguing legends clings to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s “Requiem,” his final masterpiece, left unfinished at his early death at age 35 in December 1791. The mischief seems to have begun in 1825, with Aleksandr Pushkin’s short verse drama “Mozart and Salieri.” Pushkin fantasized that the supremely talented Mozart, upon completing the “Requiem,” was poisoned by his rival, the mediocre but powerful official court composer Antonio Salieri. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov perpetuated the tale in a one-act 1897 opera, which used a slight abridgment of the Pushkin drama for its libretto. In his 1978 play “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer took a less literal view, depicting a manipulative Salieri who deprives Mozart of recognition by patrons and public, but kills him only figuratively with the poison of envy. The myth took its most extreme leap in Shaffer’s screenplay for the acclaimed 1984 Milos Forman movie. On screen, Salieri completes his triumph by appearing in the guise of an emissary from the beyond to commission the “Requiem,” pushing a depressed and destitute Mozart to work himself to death to complete it, copying down the dying composer’s final directives, and then claiming the masterpiece as his own. It’s an enthralling tale but, alas, wholly false. Although the power of the imagery suggests the accurate depiction of historical fact to most viewers, Shaffer deliberately framed both the play and the movie as the flashback fantasy of a guilt-ridden and demented Salieri. The central paradox of “Amadeus,” though, remains compelling — that only another, inevitably inferior composer could truly appreciate Mozart’s genius, while being condemned to a lifetime of frustration, unable to approach Mozart’s brilliance. The real story behind the “Requiem” is nearly as intriguing and has led to a vexing challenge for modern musicologists. HIS LAST YEAR By 1791, Mozart’s career was in eclipse. He no longer attracted audiences to concerts, had few students, and was squandering his talent on trivial commissioned music (for mechanical clocks and glass harmonicas) and dances for court balls (33 written in January and February alone). But, as H.C. Robbins Landon has detailed in 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, the composer was happily married and only slightly in debt; sent his wife, Constanze, for extended stays at distant spas; and had a nice home, fine clothes, and meals brought in by servants. Then something bizarre happened. In July, Mozart received a commission for a requiem from a stranger, who advanced half the fee and insisted upon anonymity. We now know that the envoy was from a Count Walsegg, an amateur flutist and cellist who sought lasting fame by claiming authorship of compositions he bought from famous composers. This time, though, the count had a better purpose — a mass to be performed each year to commemorate the death of his young wife. We have conflicting accounts of Mozart’s mental state during this crucial period. After Mozart and his wife returned from a trip to Prague, Constanze went to a spa, and, fortunately for posterity, Mozart wrote her often. His letters are wholly upbeat, his mood buoyed by the success of a new opera. Yet, in the first Mozart biography (albeit not written until 1798), a family friend claimed that Mozart’s health and spirits plunged, his melancholy thoughts obsessed with a paranoid fear of being slowly poisoned, contemplation of his own death, and a gnawing dread that he was writing the “Requiem” for himself. Indeed, after her return, Constanze took the score away from Mozart upon a doctor’s advice, but then returned it when his morale improved. Mozart took to his bed on Nov. 20 with what has since been diagnosed as rheumatic fever. While his debilitating symptoms seem appalling by modern standards, he was expected to fully recover, as did most victims of the same epidemic. On Dec. 4 his condition suddenly declined and then was made even worse by misguided medical treatment. He died shortly after midnight on Dec. 5 and was buried the next day after an open-air funeral. For reasons that remain unclear (the weather was fine), no one accompanied his casket to the cemetery, where it was placed in an unmarked common grave that has never been found. MISSING PIECES Despite her depiction in Shaffer’s “Amadeus” as a twit, Constanze had a shrewd business sense. Her immediate concern was finishing the “Requiem” to collect the remainder of the commission. Of the piece’s 14 sections, Mozart had completed only the first, together with the vocals, the bass, and an outline of the remaining instrumentation for eight more. Constanze had his foremost pupil, F.J. Freystädtler, complete the orchestration of the second movement for performance at a memorial service. She next gave the score to Joseph Eybler, a close friend whom Mozart held in high esteem, but who stopped after fleshing out Mozart’s sketches of five sections. Eybler claimed other commitments, but perhaps he felt unworthy to step into Mozart’s shoes. Finishing the rest of the score was more problematic. Mozart’s manuscript contained nothing at all for the planned “Sanctus,” “Benedictus,” and “Agnus Dei” sections. Constanze apparently tried to enlist a number of other respected composers, but ultimately settled for Franz Süssmayr, a copyist and occasional pupil who just happened to be present during Mozart’s final night but for whom Mozart had little regard. (In letters to Constanze that fall, Mozart had called Süssmayr a blockhead, an ass-licker, and a lamp-cleaner, likening his mental acuity to that of a duck in a thunderstorm.) The crucial question that has perplexed scholars ever since is how much of the final product is authentic Mozart. Until his very end, Mozart had no reason to entrust completion of his “Requiem” to anyone else, so the events of the very brief period after he accepted his fatal condition are crucial to assessing how much of the “Requiem” derives from his sketches and other directives. Both Constanze and her sister, motivated to legitimize the completed work as genuine, claimed that Constanze had provided Süssmayr with scraps of music possibly intended for the work (none of which has ever surfaced) and that in his final hours, Mozart explained to Süssmayr how to complete it. Süssmayr, clearly motivated to enhance his role, asserted that he composed those three sections “afresh.” One modern scholar, Richard Maunder, analyzed Süssmayr’s other work and concluded on stylistic and technical grounds that Süssmayr most likely did write at least two of the missing sections of the “Requiem” himself. Others, though, note that even those portions so surpass the consistent mediocrity of Süssmayr’s other work as to prove significant input from Mozart. In any event, Süssmayr largely disregarded Eybler’s additions, wrote out the entire score in his own hand (so as to allay suspicion of multiple authorship), and forged Mozart’s signature (but stupidly dated it 1792!). THE GENIUS OF MOZART Those versed in the Mozart style generally agree that Süssmayr’s work on the “Requiem” is deeply flawed, with technical errors, needless instrumental doubling of voices, and a general lack of inspiration (although few nonscholarly ears notice the faults, and, as many concede, who wouldn’t be found lacking when compared to the genius of Mozart?). Yet the question remains of what, if anything, to do about it. There’s little consensus among editors of modern editions and recordings of the “Requiem.” Some merely accept the Süssmayr version because of its familiarity. Others adhere to Süssmayr’s basic plan but attempt to correct his mistakes and lighten the instrumentation. Still others replace the Süssmayr material with their own, often including an “Amen” fugue based on a recently discovered 16-measure fragment by Mozart. Compared to the neglect faced by most of Mozart’s work until the 20th century, the “Requiem” has always been popular — a popularity fueled by the myths surrounding its creation. Commentator Milton Cross noted, “The chilling awareness that he was dying, and that he was writing his own requiem, brought to his writing an other-worldly beauty and a depth of awareness unique even for Mozart.” Indeed, even in comparison with his other late masterpieces, the “Requiem” is extraordinary, condensing a vast realm of feeling into well less than an hour. Poised between the formal dignity of the great Baroque religious works (Bach and Handel) and the visceral bombast of the future Romantic requiems (Berlioz and Verdi), it displays the best of those styles while maintaining a pervasive sobriety and somber instrumentation appropriate to the subject. Like all great Mozart, the “Requiem” has an expressive depth that draws us beneath the surface for startling emotional richness. It pulls rather than pushes.
Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted online at www.classicalnotes.net. For recommended recordings of the “Requiem,” go to www.classicalnotes.net/classics/mozartrequiem.html.

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