Requiems, Anniversaries, and Controversies

By James David Jacobs

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Dec. 4 & 5

Mozart died early in the morning on December 5, 1791. If you are even a casual Mozart fan, it's likely that you already knew that, and that you have a picture in your mind of what that event was like. While the movie Amadeus certainly contributed to this scene entering the public imagination, playwright Peter Shaffer is not to be blamed/credited for creating the mythology surrounding Mozart's death or the mystery and controversy surrounding it. In fact, the original stage play made it very clear that the events you see enacted are not intended to be factual history but a dramatization of the paranoid, solipsistic delusions that Salieri harbored in his state of increasing dementia in his last years - and the fact that he harbored these delusions is well documented history. The play is very stage-y and presentational and clearly an internal, psychological drama. The movie, however, felt like a biopic, and misinformed an entire generation of the truth surrounding Mozart's death - and his life, for that matter.

But before you start blaming Milos Forman and Hollywood sensibilities for distorting and rewriting history, consider that Pushkin wrote a short verse drama called "Mozart and Salieri" in 1830, while Mozart's wife Constanze was still very much alive!  (In the picture to the left, Constanze is the one in front on the left, wearing black. Maybe. Like so much else surrounding Mozart's life, this picture's authenticity has been disputed.)  This piece, in historical terms, leaves Shaffer and Forman in the dust: we see Salieri poison Mozart in front of our eyes. This drama, was, in turn, set as a one-act opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, who certainly knew that as history the story is nonsense, but as drama, especially as written by Pushkin, it's great theater. But, before you start saying that it's the Russians' fault that Mozart's story was distorted, perhaps you should take a look at what Constanze herself did in the weeks following Mozart's death.

Desperate to fulfill Count Walsegg's (a servant of whom was the real "grey messenger") commission so the balance of the fee could be collected, Constanze took Mozart's unfinished Requiem manuscript to several composers in the hope that they would complete the composition in a plausibly Mozartian style. In the end the job fell to Franz Xaver Sussmayr, a pupil of Mozart's whom some biographers allege was having an affair with Constanze while Mozart lay on his deathbed (there's another movie here, methinks...).  Sussmayr's handwriting was remarkably close to Mozart's, so the ruse worked, but it was not long before the truth was revealed, and the timing of this revelation was also designed to bring the surviving players maximum profit. And before we're done pointing fingers, let's go to Mozart himself: the opening bars of the work are obviously-more-than-coincidentally derivative of the opening of Handel's funeral anthem "The Ways of Zion do Mourn."  For the soprano solo on the words "Te Decet Hymnus," Mozart uses the same derivation of the tonus peregrinus that Bach used in both his Latin and German Magnificat settings, and was also used by several other German Lutheran composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but has no direct connection with the Requiem text; and the first subject of the Kyrie fugue that follows is "borrowed" from another Handel work, one that's resounding all over Boston this weekend - "And With These Stripes" from Messiah. While this could all be more properly considered tribute than plagiarism, these kind of borrowings are very rare in Mozart's work, and his extensive use of appropriated materials that aren't very well hidden could be construed as a sign of haste. (Interestingly, the only other well-known example of Mozart doing this dates from the same period: the derivation of the theme of the overture to The Magic Flute from a piano sonata by Clementi.)

So Mozart's Requiem has been shrouded in murkiness, mystery, shadiness, deviousness, and just-plain weirdness from the beginning. One of the first people to try to unravel the mystery is Johannes Brahms, who was a significant musicologist as well as a composer. Brahms edited the Requiem for the first edition of Mozart's complete works, in which he carefully went through the score and marked M for those parts composed by Mozart and S for those parts by Sussmayr. This wasn't as difficult as it sounds: their handwriting was similar but not identical, and before he died Sussmayr himself pretty thoroughly documented who wrote what. So we've had access to a pure-Mozart torso for well over a century, and you'd think -- well, at least I'd think -- that somewhere in there someone would be curious to hear what that unadulterated torso sounds like. We've had other completions by various musicians (including Harvard's own Robert Levin) attempting to correct Sussmayr's clumsy orchestration and voice-leading; while these are perhaps more skillful than the traditional version, their existence and proliferation via recordings just adds more layers of inauthenticity and takes us even further from Mozart's text. For years I had been thinking how much I'd love to produce a performance of the torso, to be appreciated much the way we appreciate the Venus de Milo (who would think of adding arms?), so I was delighted to discover while exploring WGBH's wonderful library that someone did indeed record the torso (most of it, anyway - the Offertorium is inexplicably missing.) It forms the filler on a CD of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, appropriately enough, and was recorded by the Frankfurt Kantorei and Radio Symphony Orchestra back in the anniversary year of 1991. On Sunday morning we'll hear it, as well as the movement of Handel's Funeral Anthem that inspired the opening movement.

Hearing the work in this form, in which the choral and vocal parts are complete and the instrumental parts are incomplete, frequently just a bass line, underscores how essentially choral the piece is: it sounds uncluttered, with the essential musical materials all there. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this version after you hear it on Sunday.

In the first hour we'll celebrate Hanukkuh with music from the Boston Camerata's album "The Sacred Bridge: Jews and Christians in medieval Europe", which the Camerata will be recreating live Sunday afternoon in an already sold-out concert at Longy School of Music's Pickman Hall. Also, since there are only a few more weeks to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, we'll hear selections from that work that are settings from the Old Testament (the sensuously devout Song of Songs).

On Saturday we'll play another Requiem, this time to celebrate a birthday: Andre Campra was baptized 350 years ago on December 4, 1660. Campra was the greatest French opera composer in the generation between Lully and Rameau, is credited with bridging the forms of opera and ballet, and, by virtue of living and composing to the age of 83, bridged several stylistic trends, which are evident in the beautiful Requiem - a uniquely French approach to the text that at times astonishingly anticipates the Requia of Faure and Durufle.

Saturday's Kid's Classical Hour is devoted to family connections in music, and we'll salute a great local musical family - as well as take one more chance to celebrate Schumann's 200th birthday - by playing a new recording of the Trio in G minor performed by the Weilerstein Trio - father Donald playing violin, mother Vivian playing piano, and daughter Alisa playing cello.

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