Few works in the history of Western Classical music have ignited as much debate as Mozart’s Requiem KV 626. And, what is even more unique, this debate has taken place at all levels: from that of the ultra-specialists to pop culture.
The factors for such a phenomenon were all there. First and foremost, the extreme musical, artistic, and spiritual beauty of the work, in spite of its incompleteness. Secondly, the fact that it is the last work of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of music. Thirdly, the fact that it is not that usual for a young composer to die while writing a Requiem Mass. Fourthly, the circumstances of its creation, completion, and transmission. And one could go on with many more items on the list.
Mozart passed away on December 5th, 1791. He was a young man of thirty-five, married to Constanze and father of two children. (Several others had been born, but did not survive infancy). He was, on the one hand, a very famous figure in the Viennese musical world, and perhaps even more beyond it – for instance, he was legend in Prague. On the other hand, he was constantly struggling with financial hardships, due in turn to the difficulties he encountered in affirming himself as a freelance composer and performer. He was by no means universally recognised as the absolute genius we now believe he was.
No wonder, then, that when the commission came for a Requiem Mass, Mozart felt very grateful for the opportunity. He had been trained as a church musician: his first job was at his father’s lifelong employer’s, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. As the very title reveals, this was a figure with both spiritual and earthly power: a delicate position, which only very expert and spiritual people could handle properly. At least in Mozart’s opinion, Archbishop Colloredo was not among them. The deteriorating relationship between Mozart and his employer led the composer not only to abandon his native city for good, but also to feel increasingly estranged from the world of Catholicism.
This was not an absolute rejection, of course. Clearly, if we compare the number of religious works written in Mozart’s youthful years with those of his mature age, the disproportion is blatant. But this is clearly understandable: when he was in the employ of a Bishop, sacred music had to be provided regularly – be it properly inspired in religious terms or “merely” beautiful. When he became a freelance artist, the occasions for writing sacred music diminished drastically. Either somebody had to commission him a sacred work, or the desire to write one had to come from his own personal feelings and beliefs.
And, indeed, this desire was not exceedingly frequent, but also not entirely missing. The most notable example, probably, is the magnificent C-minor Mass, written as a thanksgiving offering for Mozart’s wife, who would also sing a solo part in it. Admittedly, that part was conceived as a showpiece for her vocal talent; but, at the same time, a profound and transcendent inspiration is undeniable.
Thus, Mozart arrived at the end of his life with a full baggage of information about Catholic rites, of knowledge and skill as a church musician, but also with relatively fresh musical experiences, and with his complicate relationship with Catholicism.
As a boy and as a youth, Mozart had written for the Church in a quintessentially operatic fashion. This was due both to his utter fascination for theatrical vocality, and to the demands of his audience. Musical settings of the Mass Ordinary were normally performed “while” the official rite of the Mass took place. Attention to what was happening at the altar was frequently – and sadly – overshadowed by attention to the purely musical aspect. Very few, in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the time, found anything inappropriate in this. After all, musical beauty and vocal virtuosity were instruments for praising God…
While, in his later years, Mozart would never turn his back to vocal virtuosity in church music, he certainly integrated his earlier approach with more substantial elements. Neither the C-minor Mass, nor the Requiem lack what is one of Mozart’s best known and most typical traits, i.e. the capability to write vocal lines which put into relief, in the best possible fashion, the most notable features of a singer’s voice. This ability had increased in time, and with the great experience Mozart had accumulated as an operatic composer. But, in the meanwhile, he had also “discovered” many other genres and languages. With the humility which is typical for true geniuses, he submitted himself to the “school” of the ancient masters: those who created Renaissance polyphony, and the more recent art of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. Mozart had become acquainted with the latter works through the good offices of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, whom the composer had nicknamed “van Suiten” due to his predilection for Baroque music.
The experience gained by Mozart through his constant study of Baroque polyphony clearly transpires in the Requiem. To cite but one example, the subject of the Kyrie fugue is one particularly cherished by Baroque composers, who connected it to the idea of Christ’ cross. If one links the first four notes (the first to the last, and the middle ones together), the result is a cross. This motif had been therefore employed to signify the cross, both aurally and visually, for a long time. (One can simply compare the beginning of G. F. Handel’s And with His stripes, from the Messiah, with Bach’s Fugue in A minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, in order to observe the similarity). Mozart drew from that tradition, and deliberately decided to accept it.
The sound he associated with these archaicising motifs was also carefully considered. In comparison with others of his last works, here the orchestration seems to be more conservative, in particular as concerns the winds. Mozart put himself in the wake of his predecessors, and felt no need to apologise about that. For this reason, the possibility of listening to the Requiem played on period instruments (i.e. with the sound Mozart himself had in mind) is particularly valuable. To name but one case, the use of the trombones is idiosyncratic. Already as a young man, when Mozart was away from Salzburg for his first self-managed operatic adventure (Idomeneo), he had written to his father in order to request some trombones for a specific scene. In that scene, Neptune, the god of sea, had to request the life of an innocent virgin. The scene was therefore one where the sacred (intended here as a powerful and terrifying force), the tragical, and the inexorable had to converge. Mozart felt that nothing could convey better this feeling than the sound of the trombones. (Due to Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, the Latin tuba had become Posaunen, i.e. trombones. In the southern Catholic Church, where Latin was still normally employed, that tuba had been progressively understood as indicating a trumpet).
Transcendence, thus, was bound to mystery and also to some degree of anguish, for Mozart. He was aware that his life had not been entirely in line with Catholic morality; and he could not manage to see the Christian God as a forgiving, merciful one – at least, not entirely. The suspicion that He was a severe judge was always at hand.
This view of the holy surfaces also from what might seem a rather unlikely place, i.e. Don Giovanni. The opera depicting the libertine’s career employs the same trombones, and the same dark colour of D minor, in the unforgettable scene between the statue of the Commendatore and the protagonist. Perhaps, Mozart thought that God was not entirely pleased with his decision to enter Freemasonry. There, the composer had found the ideals of brotherhood and equality he had sought in vain – at least in his feeling – in the Salzburg episcopal curia.
At the same time, Mozart was capable – like perhaps no one has ever been – to depict tenderness and love in the most efficacious fashion. After all, opera is all about love, and a composer whose life was opera could not be indifferent to that dimension. And in his “late” church music, this dimension of tenderness, of mercy, of imploration and of contemplation is abundantly found. Its most iconic and perfect embodiment is certainly the enchanting Ave verum.
All this comes together in the Requiem: the tradition Mozart had inherited from the earlier chapel masters who had come before him; a comparative variety in styles (from the nearly-operatic to that reminiscent of the Renaissance); a difficult relationship with God, and, more precisely, with his Church; a palette of musical strategies and resources for representing the sacred; but also, and more importantly, an ultimate feeling of confidence and childlike trust, which are the true marks of an authentic Christian belief.
As is well known, Mozart did not live long enough to see his Requiem completed, let alone performed. The task of finishing the remaining numbers was entrusted (by Mozart’s dying request? Probably not) to some of his pupils, and among them to Franz Xaver Süßmayr, who had been closest to the composer in his last years. How much did Süßmayr possess, in terms of Mozart’s compositional plan, of his sketches, and of his oral instructions? How conscientious had Süßmayr been, in respecting the composer’s indications? Süßmayr never responded in an entirely satisfactory fashion to these questions. Curiously, for us, he was not particularly interested for the world to know that “Mozart’s” Requiem was not entirely by the composer’s hand, let alone the role he had had in its completion. Rather, loyal to Constanze, he wished the work to have the greatest possible dissemination, and the label “by W. A. Mozart” was certainly more convincing, under this viewpoint, that the more correct one (“By W. A. Mozart and his collaborators”).
And while the most important specialists of Mozart’s hand are still debating what stage “his” Requiem had reached when Süßmayr took it over, even the most distracted know the dark legend about this work, and its popularisation through Amadeus (a splendid film in itself, but entirely unreliable historically). Was Mozart composing the Requiem for his own soul? Was it aware of his approaching end? Was he imploring forgiveness for his sins – as is seemingly suggested by the score, when this imploration seems to be the last one written by Mozart? We cannot know. What the music firmly affirms, however, is that such a supreme beauty is not entirely of this world; that the nostalgia for infinity and infiniteness it conveys is genuine; that, at last, Mozart had found the right (musical) words for addressing the pressing matter of what lies beyond the limits of this human, all too human, life.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
She specialized in the German Lied with Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Irwin Gage. She performed in the main festivals of Ancient Music in Italy, as well as abroad, (Regensburg, Ambronay, Utrecht, Al Bustan Beirut, Brugge, Musica Antiga de Barcelona) singing with Athestis Chorus , Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, Cappella Artemisia, Concerto Italiano, Concerto Köln, Les Nations, L’arte dell’Arco, la Risonanza and collaborating with conductors such as, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Alfredo Bernardini, Fabio Bonizzoni, Federico Guglielmo, Gerhard Jenemann, Peter Maag, Michael Radulescu e Ton Koopmann. She has recorded for Amadeus, Chandos, Gaudeamus, Onclassical, Naxos, Tactus and Bottega Discantica.
Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli
Brilliantly graduated at the Music Conservatoires in Milan and in Ferrara. She then continued her studies with Luciano Pavarotti, Sonia Prina, Fernando Opa and Vivica Genaux. Francesca has been engaged in several almost forgotten in modern times operas: Among these she debuted in the leading roles of La Rosinda (in Potsdam, Bayreuth and Vantaa, conducted by Mike Fentross), Artemisia by Cavalli (Hanover and Montpellier, conducted by Claudio Cavina) – both recorded by Ludi Musici and Glossa – and as Zelemina in Cavalli’s Veremonda at the US festival Spoleto Charleston 2015. She sang at Teatro Comunale in Ferrara as Alcina in Haendel’s Alcina, in Japan in Monteverdi’s Orfeo production by Stefano Vizioli, at Teatro San Carlo in Neaples in Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Sciro under Alessandro De Marchi. At Seoul National Opera she has sung as Ersilla in Vivaldi’s L’Orlando finto pazzo, which has been revived in 2017 with Georg Petrou conductor and Fabio Ceresa director.
He established a long-term collaboration with many internationally renowned ensembles on period instruments, including Les Concerts de les Nations/La Capella Reial de Catalunya, The English Concert, L’Arpeggiata, La Petite Bande, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Il Giardino Armonico, appearing in the most important festivals, concert seasons and opera houses, from the Musikverein in Vienna to the Lucerne Festival, from the Staatsoper unter den Linden Berlin to La Monnaie Bruxelles. He works with the conductors Christina Pluhar, René Jacobs, Jordi Savall, Sigiswald Kuijken, Giovanni Antonini, Ottavio Dantone, Diego Fasolis. Fulvio began his musical education at very young age, singing in boy choirs, later attending singing classes at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra of Milan, and at the Conservatorio of Milan under the guidance of Margareth Hayward, followed by master classes in The Netherlands and Germany.
MAGNIFICAT CHOIR & CONSORT
The Magnificat Choir & Consort is a professional choral and instrumental ensemble focussing on the study and performance of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century repertoire, with a particular predilection for sacred Italian and German compositions of the Baroque era.
The MAGNIFICAT CHOIR & CONSORT carries out an intense and continuing research, study, transcription and preparation of works, frequently neglected, in order to provide concerts and high-quality musical performances.
The MAGNIFICAT CHOIR & CONSORT is composed by young professional choristers and instrumentalists, united by their unique love for early music and animated by the desire to make known to a wider audience a repertoire of musical compositions from the late Renaissance sacred polyphony to the Baroque “oratorio concertato”.
The use of historically informed performance practice on period instruments is due to a precise philological and interpretative choice, aimed at restoring the feelings and "affetti" of the Baroque era for an increasingly demanding audience.
The group was born as a mixed polyphonic choir, but performs in different ensembles: from the solo "consort" to the complete choir, making use of its versatility in order to adapt itself to several kinds of works.
The MAGNIFICAT CHOIR & CONSORT performed on numerous occasions, with some of the most famous works in the Baroque sacred repertoire including Bach’s “Magnificat” and “Christmas Oratorio”, Handel’s “Messiah”, Charpentier’s “Te Deum” and Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine".
He began his piano studies at a very young age, giving his first public recital at the age of 11. He attended the Schola Cantorum “S. Cecilia” in Caravaggio where he learned the first elements of choral music.
Parallel to his classical studies he attended the Composition Class held by Maestro Ferrero at the Conservatorio “G. Verdi” in Milan and actively participated in the foundation of a polyphonic school choir.
In 1994 he obtained a degree in classical studies at Liceo Classico “S. Weil” in Treviglio (BG) and performed with the choir of the Conservatorio “G. Verdi” in the Duomo di Milano and Teatro alla Scala, under the direction of Maestro Bruno Casoni.
In 2009 he recorded "La Tromba della Divina Misericordia”, an unpublished oratorio by G. B. Bassani, together with the “StilModerno” Ensemble conducted by Carlo Centemeri.
With “Ensemble Magnificat” he has performed for over a decade as Direttore al Cembalo in several important productions in which he established relationships with many professional musicians who specialized in Early Music: among them Gabriele Cassone, solo trumpet for the most important Bachian works, such as cantatas BWV 51 and 147, Magnificat BWV 243 and the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248..
In 2020 he completed the “Master in Advanced Studies (MAS) in Renaissance Polyphony Performance” at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano under the guidance of prof. Diego Fratelli, graduating with honors.
He is currently the artistic director of the "Magnificat Choir & Consort", a professional ensemble dedicated to the study and interpretation of the Renaissance, Baroque and classical oratorio repertoire.
His repertoire ranges from baroque to Lieder, from Mozart up to the authors of XX and XXI Century. His career has taken him to major Theatres and Festivals worldwide such as Teatro alla Scala, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro Regio in Turin, Paris Théâtre du Châtelet, Tel Aviv New Israeli Opera, Grand Théâtre de Geneve, Teatro Sao Carlo in Lisbon, Teatro Verdi Trieste, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Festival Pergolesi Spontini in Jesi, Opera de Lyon, de Montecarlo, and Montpellier, Seoul Opera. He has performed in various world premieres as Il Dissoluto Assolto by Azio Corghi at La Scala in Milan, Antigone by Ivan Fedele and Phaedra by Hans Werner Henze both at Teatro del Maggio Fiorentino. He has sung Ritorno di Ulisse in patria – Ulisse with La Venexiana, again at Teatro alla Scala Il Ritorno di Ulisse in patria with Rinaldo Alessandrini directed by Robert Wilson, and recently again in Florence at Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 2011 for Makropulos Case under Zubin Mehta, stage director William Friedkin.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: (b Salzburg, 27 Jan 1756; d Vienna, 5 Dec 1791). Austrian composer, son of Leopold Mozart. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, which coalesced in his Viennese years, from 1781 on, into an idiom now regarded as a peak of Viennese Classicism. The mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply coloured by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions. Unlike Haydn, his senior by 24 years, and Beethoven, his junior by 15, he excelled in every medium current in his time. He may thus be regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.