Mozart Requiem, October 2011

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Hackney Singers Mozart Requiem 2011

…I thoroughly enjoyed it . . the singing was superb; The sopranos especially, I thought, came over so beautifully. The Forest Philharmonic, as usual, were brilliant; …

Just thought I would let you know that I went to hear Hackney Singers and Forest Philharmonic yesterday, … It was brilliant, the orchestra were great and Mozart’s Requiem which I love was beautifully executed by the choir. So if any of you get the opportunity to hear them in the future I would recommend the experience.

The Dies Irae was terrifying – it was like being hit by a wall of sound.

No piece of music is so bound up in its own mythology as Mozart’s Requiem, one of the most enigmatic pieces of music ever composed. This was a stunning performance by the 150-strong Hackney Singers to a capacity audience at St John at Hackney. Accompanied by the Forest Philarmonic with renowned conductor Mark Shanahan, the programme also featured performances of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings.

Hackney Singers’ next concert will be the Christmas Concert at St Peter’s De Beauvoir, on Sunday December 11th, followed by a performance of Handel’s Messiah in March 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall.

REQUIEM, KV626 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

No piece of music s so bound up in its own mythology as Mozart’s Requiem. The elements are familiar to anyone who has seen the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name: the 35-year-old Mozart, already ill and with serious money troubles, is visited by an ominous lack-clad figure, whose sepulchral appearance and diabolical tricorn suggest a visitor from the infernal regions to which Mozart had once consigned Don Giovanni; the mysterious stranger bears a lucrative anonymous commission to write a Mass for the Dead; Mozart is up to the eyes in other work, but he needs the money, so he accepts; he battles against failing health to meet the deadline, harried by repeated visits from the man in black and dictating scraps of music to his great rival Salieri when he becomes too weak to write, but eventually he dies before he can finish the Mass; it is later completed, in workmanlike fashion, by his friend and pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803).

Not all the details of the conception and completion of the Requiem are known for certain, by any means, but once the accretions of legend and pantomime have been stripped away, and pieces fitted into the jigsaw that have only been discovered in recent years, we can get a fair idea of what really happened.

It was in 1791, while he was working on what was to be his final opera, The Magic Flute, that Mozart received the commission for a Requiem Mass. It was delivered by Dr Johann Nepomuk Sortschan, the business representative of Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach. This nobleman was a keen amateur musician who was known not to be above claiming authorship of musical compositions he had commissioned from others. His wife had died in February, and it is fairly clear from the secrecy in which he shrouded his proxy dealings with Mozart that he had the same idea in mind for his wife’s Requiem.

Mozart had been ill in Prague in the summer, and when he returned to Vienna his condition did not improve, but he pressed ahead feverishly with work on the Mass. He seemed to be urged on in his labours by a premonition of his own death; it was almost as if he was composing his own Requiem. By the end of November he was confined to bed, being nursed by his wife Constanze and her sister Sophia. On 4 December some friends gathered round his bed to sing parts of the unfinished Mass, but later that evening his condition worsened, and at 1 a.m. on  5 December he died. (There is no evidence that his death was not natural, despite many rumours to the contrary.)

There is no doubt that Süssmayr was responsible for the final version of the Requiem as we now have it and as it is being performed this evening. What is not clear is exactly which bits he wrote himself. The Introit and Kyrie, Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum, Rex Tremendae, Recordare, Confutatis, and Hostias are incontestably solely the work of Mozart. It is also established that he was the originator of the Lacrimosa and Domine Jesu, although elements of their orchestration were filled in by others after his death. It is over the last three sections, the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, that the real doubt arises. Süssmayr claimed that they were wholly his. Constanze denied this (but it was obviously in her interest that as much of the work should be accepted as ‘genuine Mozart’ as possible).

The comparative quality of the movements which Süssmayr said he wrote might be said to support his claim: one modern editor of the Requiem has referred to the fugues in the Sanctus as ‘perfunctory’ and detected ‘harmonic stagnation’ in the central part of the Benedictus, and it can be no accident that the most successful of the three, the Agnus Dei, contains adaptations of music from the earlier, ‘Mozart’ part of the Requiem.

Overall, however much of it he was personally responsible for, Süssmayr’s work has not been kindly received by the critics. Musicians such as Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter have accused it of being clumsy and unMozartian. But who else but Mozart could have been Mozartian? Whatever its imperfections, the Requiem has over the past two hundred years established itself as one of the best loved of his works. The majestic opening movement, the turbulent Dies Irae, the dramatic Confutatis, the gravely beautiful Hostias, all are the product of inimitable genius, and as we listen to them, niceties of musicological attribution fade quickly into the background.