There is perhaps no piece of music that is surrounded with as many legends and mysteries as Mozart's Requiem.
A man dressed in black
Bowed respectfully, commissioned a
Requiem from me, then disappeared.
My man in black gives me no peace
Day and night.
The mysterious story of the man in black and the Requiem formed the basis for Pushkin's short tragedy Mozart and Salieri, written in 1830. The same theme was also the central feature in Milos Forman's sensational film Amadeus a century and a half later. The mystique of the legend was largely instrumental in the film's success, as it was in the popularity of the great composer's unfinished work (it was completed by Sussmayr from Mozart's sketches), though the true circumstances of the commission became clear quite soon afterwards.
The mysterious stranger, presented in Pushkin's work as “a vision of the grave”, was no more than the servant of Count Walsegg, a great lover of music who played several instruments reasonably well. The count was not content with his fame as a performer – he particularly wished to gain renown also as a composer, but did not have the requisite ability. However, his ingenious inventiveness helped him to overcome this “insignificant” difficulty. He anonymously commissioned works from leading composers for large sums of money, then passed them off as his own. The “creative” idea of the Requiem came to him on the occasion of the anniversary of his wife's death.
Contrary to the legendary version, Mozart was in no hurry to start work on the commission. After agreeing to take it because of his acute need of money, he put it off in the hope of earning money from a composition by himself, not from somebody else, and only seriously started work on the Requiem when he was confined to bed by his fatal illness. This illness became the cause of rumours about Mozart's violent death, and played a cruel joke on the outstanding opera composer and teacher Antonio Salieri, who has gone down in history only as the poisoner of his brilliant rival. In fact, it is hardly likely that Salieri was responsible for Mozart's death, though it is certainly true that they had fallen out.
The Requiem, written for soloists, choir and orchestra, is a setting of the traditional Latin text and develops the traditions of the oratorios of Bach and Handel, whose scores Mozart studied attentively. The composer's operatic experience can be felt in the solo, choral and orchestral passages. Its brilliant expressiveness has guaranteed the success of the Requiem on the concert platform, and Mozart's interpretation of the movements has become a yardstick that continues to have an influence on composers to this day (Slonimsky's Requiem).
Requiem aeternam (Grant them Eternal Rest, O Lord...) is an introduction, a prayer for the grant of peace to the dead. The mournful intonations of the choir against the background of the orchestra's “pacing” motion create the impression of a funeral procession. A somewhat brighter mood is introduced at the words Et lux perpetua luceat eis! (And may Eternal Light Shine on Them!). The second section, the rapid fugue Kyrie eleison (Lord, Have Mercy), conveys the state of humanity, burdened by sin, waiting for the Day of Judgment.
The following six movements form the dramatic core of the work. Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is a vivid picture of Judgment Day. Tuba Mirum (The Wondrous Trumpet) summons everyone to appear before the throne of God. The extremely broad melodic lines, in combination with the slow tempo, create an image of serene grandeur. Rex tremendae is the embodiment of the formidable King. Recordare (Remember, Merciful Jesus) is a movement that seemed to Mozart to be exceptionally important. Here the mood of heartfelt trust is reinforced – the composer portrays with conviction the depth of love and mercy of Him who was earlier characterised as an implacable and stern judge. In Confutatis maledictis (When the Wicked are Confounded) the portrayal of the torments of sinners, in which the orchestra imitates tongues of flame, contrasts with the imploring phrases of the female voices. The famous transition to the next movement by means of harmony gives the effect of sinking further and further, as though the gates of hell are gaping wider. Lacrimosa (Lachrymal) is the lyrical culmination of the Requiem.
The following movements are the “Offertorium”, the prayers that directly precede communion – Domine Jesu (Lord Jesus) and Hostias (Sacrifice). The lighter atmosphere introduced in these is reinforced in Sanctus (Holy), Benedictus (Blessed is He) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), balancing the overall tragic character of the work. In accordance with Mozart's wishes the fugue from the first movement is repeated at the end, giving the whole cycle a great unity.