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The Mozart Requiem - A Primer

The Mozart Requiem performance is fast approaching - we are getting ready for the final week of rehearsals with the orchestra and soloists. This is the perfect time to ask our own Dr. Charlene Biggs to give us some background and context to the Mozart Requiem.

Dr. Charlene Biggs

Notes from Dr. Charlene Biggs: 

The year 1791 was for Mozart a time of dramatic reversals of fortune.  It was also a time of high musical productivity in which he composed The Magic Flute, Ave Verum Corpus, the Piano Concerto in Bb major K595, the Clarinet Concerto K622 and the Requiem in D minor K626. He began work on the Requiem in July of 1791 after receiving a commission from a envoy who refused to identify who had commissioned the work.  The mysterious patron was eventually revealed to be Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach, an amateur instrumentalist/composer who intended to pass the work off as his own. Indeed, after Mozart’s death he claimed, falsely, that he was a pupil of the great composer, and had helped ‘complete’ parts of the work. 

Work on the Requiem was interrupted as Mozart prepared for performances of La Clemenza di Tito in Prague but after falling ill in September, Mozart turned his attention back to the Requiem and worked feverishly to complete it. As his health deteriorated, he came to believe he was writing it for his own funeral. It remained unfinished at the time of his death, and was believed to be completed by composer Franz Xavier Süssmayr (1766-1803) the following year, possibly with the aid of sketches or instructions from Mozart himself. 

The Requiem is composed for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus, organ and orchestra. His scoring of the wind section is of particular interest: instead of employing flutes and clarinets, he writes for bassoons and 2 basset horns in F, which allows for darker musical colours in keeping with the somber subject matter. (The basset horn is a larger member of the clarinet family, characterized by a bend between the mouthpiece and the upper joint.)

Many modern performances replace the basset horns with clarinets.

Mozart’s key choices are plotted with care, and are used to enhance the word settings. The dominant key of the Requiem is D minor, the key of tragedy, and he brilliantly exploits the key’s intensity in moments of high drama (‘Dies Irae’) and in moments of sorrow (‘Lacrimosa’.). Another example of Mozart’s attention to tonal colour is his setting of the ‘Recordare’ which is written in the pastoral key of F major, reflecting the plea for mercy to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He enhances the drama, the terror and hope expressed in the liturgy and makes us listen as if for the first time. Perhaps its ultimate message is as much about life as it is about death.

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