Mozart’s Requiem, the Dirge of Death


 It was early July of 1791 when an unknown, “grey stranger” showed up at the door of the sick and mentally unstable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, saying he came as a messenger representing someone who wanted a requiem composed for him and that he wished for the composer to not learn the identity of this mysterious patron. And so, upon his deathbed, Mozart slaved himself obsessively into the commission; thus, the infamous Mass Requiem was born – although the artist died before he was able to see his piece of work come alive.

The Requiem in D minor, K. 626, is a Requiem Mass consisting of eight sections – one of them being the famous Lacrimosa – scored for orchestra, four soloists, and a chorus. The piece was a commission from an unknown patron, however, Mozart died before he was able to complete the piece, and it was later finished by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. 

It is a well-known fact that Mozart was a gifted genius in music, yet even so, he did not live quite an ideal life as he was reaching the end of his life. In 1791 when he first received the commission, Mozart was already experiencing financial difficulties, struggling to secure stable employment and income, as well as being burdened by debts. To add to everything, his own health had begun declining greatly. Some historians and scholars speculate that he might have been suffering from a chronic illness such as rheumatic fever or kidney disease, although there is no concrete evidence to support these theories. As such, the commission most likely also added to Mozart’s stress and the decline of his emotional state. The story gets even more miserable that as time went on with Mozart writing the piece, he became so out of his mind that he believed he was writing a Requiem for his own funeral, and upon hearing the parts he had already finished sung back to him, he reportedly broke down crying and died a few hours later.

Mozart died on December 5, 1791, in the middle of writing the last part of the third section, Sequentia, called Lacrimosa, which later became one of the most famous parts of the entire piece, as many would use the word ‘death’ when describing that particular section. The existence of Lacrimosa in general is also shrouded in mystery, which adds to the amount of interest shown in it. It also did not help that when completing the piece, Süssmayr copied and rewrote the entirety of the original manuscript Mozart had written with the former’s own hand, making it difficult to determine which parts were written by Mozart and which were by him; although now, it is widely believed that Mozart merely wrote the first eight bars of Lacrimosa, and Süssmayr’s writing began on the ninth bar onwards.

So now, here comes the question: who was the anonymous patron who commissioned the work?

Peter Shaffer, the famous British playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, took creative liberties and added a few layers of fiction to his adaptation of the story in his play, Amadeus, which premiered on Broadway on 11 December 1980 at the Broadhurst Theatre. In that play, the role of this anonymous commissioner was pinned on Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer who is also painted as Mozart’s rival. The narrative brought by this play caused some to truly believe that Salieri was indeed the mysterious commissioner, who showed up upon Mozart’s door in a black mask, and it also brought the narrative that the cause of Mozart’s death was being poisoned by Salieri – although many historians and scholars greatly disprove this narrative, believing that Salieri and Mozart were actually great friends. To add to this debate, in the 1950s, an unfinished manuscript of the Requiem was found in Brussels, however, a section of the last page was torn off and was never retrieved, leading many to believe it was stolen.

Upon countless research conducted many years later, it is later known that the identity of the anonymous commissioner was Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, who initially commissioned the piece for a requiem service on February 14, 1792, to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of his wife Anna. Walsegg had a reputation for commissioning a number of music pieces anonymously and presenting them as his own, which he was probably also going to do with the Requiem. However, this intention was defeated by a public benefit performance for Constanze Mozart, an Austrian singer, and Mozart’s wife, who was also responsible for the number of stories surrounding the Requiem’s composition, including the claim that Mozart received the commission from a mysterious messenger in the first place and that Mozart slowly came to believe he was writing a Requiem for his own death. She also later became Mozart’s biographer jointly with her second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, whom she married following Mozart’s death.

Writer: Manohara Diwasasri

Editor: Elisabeth Grisella S.