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Sturm und Drang: Mozart's Requiem

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Tragedy struck on Valentine's Day, 1791. In a picturesque castle in Gloggnitz, Austria, a young, 20-year-old Countess drew her last breath. Her grieving husband, 28-year-old Count Franz Walsegg (who would never remarry), decided to commemorate her death each year with a Requiem Mass. In July, he sent his steward to Vienna, instructing him to commission the talented Imperial Court Composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to compose the work anonymously. Walsegg intended to sign his own name to the composition, as he had often done with other commissioned works in the past. He told his steward not to reveal his identity to Mozart. Walsegg's steward set out on the fateful journey, arriving at Mozart's home in a grey, mysterious-looking cloak. At first, Mozart refused the commission, but as he realized how desperate his financial situation was becoming, he finally agreed to compose the piece. Little did he know he would be composing his own funeral mass.

Mozart did not begin Requiem right away. He had made previous commitments and had three other works to complete, including his opera, "The Magic Flute." Instead, he began composing Requiem in October, when the leaves turned, and cold winter began sending its chilly whisper on the wind. Mozart himself felt the freezing hand of death brush his spirit as he began his work. Soon he became convinced that Requiem would become not just an ode to a dead countess but his own dirge of death. Mozart had already been sick for several weeks and became paranoid that someone was poisoning him. At his insistence, his wife Constanze left for a refreshing stay at a spa, but when she returned, she found her husband in a very distressing state. Following a doctor's advice, Constanze took the Requiem score away from Mozart and urged him to take a break. He began work on a more upbeat cantata and soon returned to happier spirits. Constanze gave him back the Requiem, and once again, he commenced work. Soon, however, his health took a turn for the worse. Beginning on November 20th, Mozart started to experience troublesome symptoms. His condition deteriorated, but his family was hopeful that he would get better. Their hopes were sadly in vain, and Mozart died (possibly from rheumatic fever) on December 5th, 1791. His Requiem was left unfinished.

When he started the Requiem, Mozart received only half of his commission. The rest of the commission would be paid later, contingent upon completion of the piece. Constanze was desperate to support her bereft family and took the unfinished mass to Mozart's friend, Joseph Eybler, who filled in the orchestral parts for some of the first movements before quitting. Constanze then took the piece to several more composers before finally finding one who would agree to the scheme — Mozart's former student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr filled in the remaining orchestral parts, added in a couple of his own movements, completed the Lacrimosa (of which Mozart had only written two measures of the orchestral and 6 measures of the choral parts), and used a motif from the beginning of the Requiem to compose an ending. Only the first movement of the introduction remained untouched, as it had been completed by Mozart before his death. Though there are flaws in Süssmayr's version of the Requiem, it is the one most people accept and perform. Others have attempted their own completions as well, but all are dwarfed by the original Süssmayr version.

Süssmayr's "additions" aside, Mozart's Requiem is a masterpiece of dark emotion. Mozart was not religious and had never composed a complete mass, so he drew upon Bach and Handel (the "Kyrie" sounds very similar to Handel's "And With His Stripes We Are Healed" from The Messiah) for technical inspiration. Mozart was also influenced in many of his pieces, including Requiem, by the brief German literary movement, Sturm und Drang. The phrase means "storm and struggle (or urge)" and was a reaction to what people viewed as the enslavement of reason that was so prevalent during the classical period. Sturm und Drang began with the clarion call of Friedrich Maximilian Klinger's play by the same name. The play was a story of the American Revolution of 1776, which Klinger infused with emotion and individualism. It was its own revolution against the tyranny of classical notions of "greater good" (the sacrifice of individual desires for the sake of the whole) and rationalism. Sturm und Drang literature is filled with themes of revenge, desire, and impulsiveness. The music of the movement (Franz Joseph Haydn was a major Sturm und Drang composer) did not leave behind the rules of classical music altogether, but it did astound audiences with unexpected rhythms and leaps of emotion. Most Sturm und Drang musical pieces were written in minor key as well, to express the depths of despair the human soul can fall into. Mozart's Requiem combines all of these aspects. It is the human journey from death and hopelessness to mercy and redemption. The Dies Irae frightens us with its musical portrait of the last days of humanity, with the fire and ashes of judgment burning the world with righteous fire. The Lacrimosa twists itself around our hearts, squeezing out our tears and then saving us with its soaring, angelic voices. The Kyrie sternly calls us and then runs away with its light, beckoning notes of mercy. We cannot help but feel the storm and struggle of emotion Mozart must have felt as he contemplated his own mortality and translated it into the sublime language of music.

As Mozart prophesied, Requiem (though only the first two movements) was performed at his memorial service. Count Walsegg could never claim the piece as his own, though he had it performed on December 14th, 1793. Mozart's Requiem will forever remain a testament to his genius and his tragic death. It is the Sturm und Drang of life, loss, and hope resurrected.