Pleasures Of Music

Mozart’s ‘Requiem’

A section of a page from the manuscript of W.A. Mozart’s Requiem, K 626 (1791), showing Mozart’s heading for the first movement. He believed he was writing it for his own funeral.
A section of a page from the manuscript of W.A. Mozart’s Requiem, K 626 (1791), showing Mozart’s heading for the first movement. He believed he was writing it for his own funeral.


An unfinished portrait of Mozart from 1782. Photo by Joseph Lange published in accompanying an article headlined ‘Experts Are Weeding Out Imposter Portraits of Mozart’
An unfinished portrait of Mozart from 1782. Photo by Joseph Lange published in accompanying an article headlined ‘Experts Are Weeding Out Imposter Portraits of Mozart’


Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most remarkable musical geniuses the world has produced, and the only one of his contemporaries whose operas still hold the stage with unimpaired freshness, was born at Salzburg, Jan. 27, 1756. He was the son of Leopold Mozart, the Salzburgian Vice-Capellmeister, who gave him and his sister Nannerl their earliest instructions in music, and with such good results that the children travelled and gave concerts with great success. Before he was seven years of age, he had composed several pieces for piano and violin, his earliest having been written at the age of five! At twelve he became court capellmeister in Salzburg. After his musical travels he went to Vienna, and there began his real period of classic activity, which commenced with “Idomeneus,” reached its culmination in “Don Giovanni,” and closed with the “Requiem,”–the “swan-song” of his wonderful life. In his brief life Mozart composed more than fifty great works, besides hundreds of minor ones in every possible form of musical writing. His greatest compositions may be classed in the following order: “Idomeneus” (1780); “Entführung aus dem Serail” (1781); “Figaro’s Hochzeit” (“The Marriage of Figaro”), (1785); “Don Giovanni” (1787); “Cosi fan tutti,” “Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”), and “Titus” (1790); and the “Requiem” (1791, the year of his death). The catalogue of Mozart’s works is an immense one, for his period of productivity was unusually long. From the age of five to his death, there was not a year that was not crowded with his music. Besides his numerous operas, of which only the more famous are given above, he wrote a large number of symphonies (of which the “Jupiter” is now the best known), sonatas, concertos for all kinds of instruments, even to musical-glasses, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets for all possible combinations of instruments, marches, fugues, masses, hymns, arias of extraordinary brilliancy–many of them written for his sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber, to whom at one time he was engaged–liturgies, cantatas, songs, and ballads, and indeed every form of music that is now known. His style was studied by Beethoven, and so closely imitated that the music of his first period, if published without autograph, would readily be attributed to Mozart. His style was so spontaneous and so characteristic that it has been well said there is but one Mozart. The distinguishing trait of his music is its rich melodic beauty and its almost ravishing sweetness. His melody pours along in a bright, unbroken stream that sometimes even overflows its banks, so abundant is it. It is peculiarly the music of youth and spring-time, exquisite in form, graceful in technique, and delightful in expression. It was the source where all his immediate successors went for their inspiration, though it lacked the maturity, majesty, and emotional depths which were reached by such a Titan as Beethoven. Old as it is, and antiquated in form, especially as compared with the work of the new schools, its perennial freshness, grace, and beauty have made it immortal.

‘Requiem,’ W.A. Mozart (1791), performed by French vocal ensemble Arsys Bourgogne




Mozart’s “Requiem” was written in Vienna in 1791 and was left in an unfinished state by the composer, who made suggestions and gave instructions as to its completion even upon his death-bed; it was literally his swan-song. No work by any composer has given rise to more romantic stories or more bitter discussion. It was long the popular belief that the “Requiem” was commissioned by a dark, mysterious stranger, whose appearance impressed Mozart with the conviction that he was a messenger of death; more than this, that he himself had been poisoned, and that he was writing his own death-song, upon the order of some supernatural power. There was some foundation for the belief, as the commission was given in a very mysterious manner, and Mozart’s health at that time was so delicate that he had had several premonitions of death. In his gloomy spirits he even said to his wife that he was writing his own requiem. The actual circumstances attending the commission, though they do not bear out the romantic versions of the story-tellers, are yet of extraordinary interest.

Count von Walsegg
Count von Walsegg

The author of the commission was one Count von Walsegg, living in the village of Stuppach, whose wife had died early in 1791. He was an amateur musician of vast ambitions and small accomplishments, and had conceived the idea of purchasing a requiem anonymously from Mozart and passing it off as his own work. In pursuance of his scheme he despatched his steward, named Leutgeb, a tall, solemn, mysterious looking person, with an anonymous letter to Mozart, who at that time was in absolute poverty, asking for the music and requesting him to name his own price–stipulating, however, that he should make no effort to discover the identity of his patron. The unsuspicious Mozart accepted the proposition, after consulting with his wife. He was about to begin work upon it at once, when he received a commission to write the opera of “Clemenza de Tito,” in honor of the Emperor Leopold’s coronation. This occupied him several weeks, and when it was completed he decided upon a visit to Baden. At the moment he was about to get into the carriage, the mysterious stranger again appeared and inquired about the progress of the “Requiem.” Mozart excused himself, and replied that as soon as he returned he would begin the work; and the stranger went away satisfied.

Mozart came back to Vienna in September; and after the completion of the “Magic Flute,” and its first performance, Nov. 30, 1791, he devoted himself assiduously to the “Requiem,” though it served only to increase his gloom. One day he remarked to his wife: “I well know that I am writing this requiem for myself. My own feelings tell me that I shall not last long. No doubt some one has given me poison; I cannot get rid of the thought.” It is now known that this suspicion was only the result of his morbid thoughts; but when it was publicly uttered, most unjust accusations were made against his rival, Salieri, embittering the old composer’s life until its close. As the work progressed, his gloom increased. “The day before his death,” Nohl says, “he desired the score to be brought to him in bed, and he sang his part, taking the alto voice. Benedict Shack took the soprano, his brother-in-law, Hofer, the tenor, and Gerl the bass. They had got through the various parts to the first bars of the ‘Lacrymosa,’ when Mozart suddenly burst into tears and laid aside the score.” His sister-in-law has left an account of his last moments. She writes:

Franz Sussmayer, Mozart's favorite pupil
Franz Sussmayer, Mozart’s favorite pupil

“As I approached his bed, he called to me: ‘It is well you are here; you must stay to-night and see me die.’ I tried as far as I was able to banish this impression; but he replied: ‘The taste of death is already on my tongue, I taste death; and who will be near to support my Constance if you go away?’ Franz Süssmayer [his favorite pupil] was standing by the bedside, and on the counterpane lay the ‘Requiem,’ concerning which Mozart was still speaking and giving directions. He now called his wife and made her promise to keep his death secret for a time from every one but Albrechtsberger, that he might thus have an advantage over other candidates for the vacant office of capellmeister to St. Stephen’s. His desire in this respect was gratified, for Albrechtsberger received the appointment. As he looked over the pages of the ‘Requiem’ for the last time, he said, with tears in his eyes: ‘Did I not tell you I was writing this for myself?'”

Mozart’s widow, after his death, fearing that she might have to refund the money advanced for the work, induced Süssmayer, who was thoroughly familiar with Mozart’s ideas, to complete it. He did so, and the copy was delivered to Count von Walsegg, who did not hesitate to publish it as his own. Süssmayer, however, had kept a copy, and after completion published it; and in a letter to the publishers set up a claim to the instrumentation of the “Requiem,” “Kyrie,” “Dies Iræ,” and “Domine,” and to the whole of the “Sanctus,” “Benedictus,” and “Agnus Dei.” The publication of Süssmayer’s letter provoked a controversy which has raged from that day to this. The ablest critics and musicians in Europe have taken part in it. Nearly all of them have defended Mozart’s authorship; but after half a century’s discussion it still remains in doubt how far Süssmayer participated in the completion of the work as it now stands. The bulk of the evidence, however, favors the theory that Süssmayer only played the part of a skilful copyist, in writing out the figurings which Mozart had indicated, carrying out ideas which had been suggested to him, and writing parts from the sketches which the composer had made. One of the most pertinent suggestions made in the course of this controversy is that of Rockstro, who says:–

“Some passages, though they may perhaps strengthen Süssmayer’s claim to have filled in certain parts of the instrumentation, stand on a very different ground to those which concern the composition of whole movements. The ‘Lacrymosa’ is quite certainly one of the most beautiful movements in the whole ‘Requiem’–and Mozart is credited with having only finished the first eight bars of it! Yet it is impossible to study this movement carefully without arriving at Professor Macfarren’s conclusion that ‘the whole was the work of one mind, which mind was Mozart’s.’ Süssmayer may have written it out, perhaps; but it must have been from the recollection of what Mozart had played or sung to him, for we know that this very movement occupied the dying composer’s attention almost to the last moment of his life. In like manner Mozart may have left no Urschriften (sketches) of the ‘Sanctus,’ ‘Benedictus,’ and ‘Agnus Dei,’–though the fact that they have never been discovered does not prove that they never existed,–and yet he may have played and sung these movements often enough to have given Süssmayer a very clear idea of what he intended to write. We must either believe that he did this, or that Süssmayer was as great a genius as he; for not one of Mozart’s acknowledged masses will bear comparison with the ‘Requiem,’ either as a work of art or the expression of a devout religious feeling. In this respect it stands almost alone among instrumental masses, which nearly always sacrifice religious feeling to technical display.”

Mozart’s Requiem, original unfinished version (1 of 3), as it would have been heard upon its debut on 10 December 1791

Part 1/3:

  1. Introitus: Requiem aeternam
  2. Kyrie eleison

III. Sequentia: Dies irae Tuba mirum 

New Berlin Chamber Orchestra – Chorus musicus Koeln

Iride Martinez, Steve Davislim, Kwangchul Youn, Monica Groop (soloists) CHRISTOPH SPERING (conductor) 


Introitus is complete, Kyrie is almost fully orchestrated, Sequentia and Offertorium are fully sketched in voices and continuo, but we have only the first eight bars of Lacrimosa (which ends the Sequentia).

No Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, although the Agnus Dei is suspected by some scholars to have been based on instruction or sketches from Mozart (…).

The last piece (in part 3/3) is a short sketch for an Amen fugue, which could be part of the Requiem; we don’t exactly know.

Note that Süssmayr decided to end the work by adapting the opening two movements which Mozart had written to the different words of Lux Aeterna. This original unfinished version ends with the Amen sketched fugue not presenting the Lux Aeterna.

After an introduction, which gives out the subject of the opening movement,–a slow, mournful, solemn theme,–the first number begins with the impressive strain, “Requiem æternam dona eis,” which gradually brightens in the phrase, “Et Lux perpetua,” and reaches a splendid burst of exultation in the “Te decet hymnus,” of which Oublichieff, the Russian critic, says: “One seems to hear the voice of an archangel, and Saint Cecilia herself with her organ sounding a fugued accompaniment which the most laborious efforts of mortals never could have power to reach.” After a repetition of the “Requiem æternam,” the number closes with the “Kyrie eleison,” a slow and complicated fugue, which is sublime in its effect, though very sombre in color, as befits the subject.

Mozart’s Requiem, original unfinished version (2 of 3), as it would have been heard on 10 December 1791

III. Sequentia (continues): (0:00) Rex tremendae majestatis – (1:40) Recordare, Jesu pie – (7:50) Confutatis maledictis – (10:20) Lacrimosa dies illa (unfinished)

New Berlin Chamber Orchestra – Chorus musicus Koeln

Iride Martinez, Steve Davislim, Kwangchul Youn, Monica Groop (soloists) CHRISTOPH SPERING (conductor)

(See Notes for 1/3 for more information on this section)

The next number is the “Dies Iræ,” written for chorus in simple counterpoint, and very dramatic in its character, the orchestral part being constantly vigorous, impetuous, and agitated, and reaching intense energy on the verse, “Quantus tremor est futurus,” the whole presenting a vivid picture in tones of the terrors of the last judgment. In the “Tuba mirum” the spirit of the music changes from the church form to the secular. It is written for solo voices, ending in a quartet. The bass begins with the “Tuba mirum,” set to a portentous trombone accompaniment; then follow the tenor (“Mors stupebit”), the alto (“Judex ergo”), and the soprano (“Quid sum miser”). This number is particularly remarkable for the manner in which the music is shaded down from the almost supernatural character of the opening bass solo to the beauty and sweetness of the soprano solo. From this extraordinary group we pass to the sublime chorus, “Rex tremendæ majestatis,” once more in the church style, which closes with the prayer, “Salva me,” in canonical form. With rare skill is this last appeal of humanity woven out of the thunder-crashes of sound in the judgment-music.

Mozart’s Requiem, original unfinished version (3 of 3), as it would have been heard on 10 December 1791

Part 3/3:

  1. Offertorium: (0:00) Domine Jesu Christe – (3:20) Versus: Hostias et preces
  2. (7:06) Amen fugue (sketch)

New Berlin Chamber Orchestra – Chorus musicus Koeln

Iride Martinez, Steve Davislim, Kwangchul Youn, Monica Groop (soloists) CHRISTOPH SPERING (conductor) 

(See Notes for 1/3 for more information on this section)

The “Dies Iræ” is followed by the “Recordare,” written, like the “Tuba mirum,” as a quartet for solo voices. The vocal parts are in canon form and are combined with marvellous skill, relieved here and there with solos in purely melodic style, as in the “Quærens me,” while the orchestral part is an independent fugue, with several subjects worked up with every form of instrumental embellishment, the fugue itself sometimes relieved by plain accompaniment. The whole is an astonishing piece of contrapuntal skill, apparently inexhaustible in its scientific combinations, and yet never for an instant losing its deep religious significance. Once more the orchestral part is full of agitation and even savage energy in the “Confutatis maledictis,” as it accompanies a powerful double chorus, closing at last in a majestic prayer (“Oro supplex et acclinis”), in which all the voices join in magnificent harmony.

The “Lacrymosa” is the most elegant and poetically conceived movement in the “Requiem.” It begins in a delicate, graceful, and even sensuous manner, which gradually broadens and strengthens, and at last develops into a crescendo of immense power, reaching its climax on the words “Judicandus homo reus.” Then it changes to a plaintive prayer (“Huic ergo parce Deus”), and closes in a cloud of gloom in the “Dona eis requiem.” The next number (“Domine Jesu Christe”) is in pure church form, beginning with a motet by chorus in solid harmony, which runs into a fugue on the words “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus,” followed by a quartet of voices regularly fugued, leading to another great fugue on the passage, “Quam olim Abrahæ,” which closes the number in a burst of sacred inspiration. The “Domine” is followed by the “Hostias,” a lovely choral melody which leads to the “Sanctus,” a sublime piece of harmony closing with a fugued “Hosanna.” The “Benedictus,” which follows it, is a solo quartet plaintive and solemn in character, but full of sweet and rich melodies magnificently accompanied.

The “Agnus Dei” closes the work, a composition of profound beauty, with an accompaniment of mournful majesty, developing into a solemn, almost funereal strain on the words “Dona eis requiem,” and closing with the fugue of the opening “Kyrie” on the words “Lux æterna.” “Written under the inspiration of death” might well be inscribed on this great monument of musical skill, this matchless requiem of awful majesty and divine beauty. In its own unity, its perfection of form and design, its astonishing skill, from the opening fugue of the “Kyrie” to its repetition in the finale, may be found the proof that Mozart and no other wrote the entire score, and that every thought and idea in it are the inspired work of the dying master.


'We see nothing more from his pen after the end of ‘Hostias’ except the words ‘Quam olim da Capo’.' This is the end of Mozart’s original autograph score.
‘We see nothing more from his pen after the end of ‘Hostias’ except the words ‘Quam olim da Capo’.’ This is the end of Mozart’s original autograph score.


Excerpt from The Standard Oratorios: Their Stories, Their Music, And Their Composers

by George P. Upton

Chicago, A.C. McLurg and Company (1893); Copyright BY A.C. McClurg and Co. (A.D. 1886)

Published at The Gutenberg Project




Although George P. Upton’s account of Mozart’s “Requiem” was published in 1893, he appears to be the first Mozart biographer to pin down the facts of the composition’s complicated history as a death-bed work. Research and study since Upton’s time has added some telling details to the full account of the work’s conception, creation, debut and reception. It’s an incredible tale. Please consult these sites for more recent theories of “Requiem”’s fascinating history:

Mozart’s Children


‘Mozart’s Requiem: the mysteries continue…’, The Guardian, December 16, 2011

‘Mozart’s Requiem: Labyrinth of Deception,’ Salieri Online

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