Who wrote the Mozart Requiem?

Hear it live with the English Symphony Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, 24 April, 2105. Booking information here 

I once conducted the Mozart Requiem in 2002 with the Grande Ronde Symphony, when I was teaching at Eastern Oregon University. In parallel with that concert, I taught a seminar class on the piece, which remains my favorite experience of classroom teaching from those years. We spent an entire term analyzing and discussing the piece, its historical importance and its context, and I think all of us felt we could have spent many more terms on it by the end. The students were graded on the basis of a research paper- the topic could be anything related to the Mozart Requiem, whether that be an analysis of the piece, a comparison of editions and sources, a history of musical requiems and Mozart’s place in it or just about anything else. Most of the papers were refreshingly good, and a few were inspiring- the range of topics was the most interesting outcome. This is a piece whose roots reach out in amazingly diverse ways.

Coming back to a piece I’ve spent so much time on is awfully humbling- all that work and all that time, and it is still an awe-inspiring work, and my return to research has uncovered and opened up a lot of paths for discovery that I was completely unaware of last time around. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the surface.

So, where to start?

How about with the thorny question of “which Mozart Requiem, K 626, will we be performing?” Or even, “Who wrote the Mozart Requiem?”

A silly question, you say? Isn’t there only one K 626?

Well, of course, many of you will know that the history of this piece is a rather tortured one, and scholars and conductors disagree vehemently about how much of the piece comes from Mozart and in what form we should perform it.

The short version of the history of the piece, shorn of all the fictions in Amadeus, is simple but dramatic. Mozart was commissioned by a Count Walsegg through an anonymous messenger- the Count, an amateur composer, wanted to pass of Mozart’s Requiem as his own for a performance in memory of his deceased wife. In his final days, Mozart, in spite of terrible, almost unimaginable agonies, worked intently on the piece, but when he couldn’t complete it, he passed it off to his pupil Sussmayr, who orchestrated it and provided the missing movements himself. The arguments among scholars and conductors are basically over the quality of Sussmayr’s contributions, and the quantity- how much of what he claimed was his really was his?

The scenario immediately gets more complex because we now know that at least four composers worked on the completion of the Requiem in the months after Mozart’s death- Sussmayr, Eybler, Frystadtler and Stadler. There are lots of detailed discussions and critiques (here, here and here for instance) of their contributions on the internet- they’re well worth reading, but read them with some healthy skepticism. What people say about the Mozart Requiem often tells who more about them than about the Requiem (including me, I’m sure).

In any case, on the basis of the autograph, where we can see what is in Mozart’s handwriting and what is in the handwriting of others, we know Mozart only orchestrated the first movement, and then offered suggestions for key orchestral touches throughout the rest of the piece. Everywhere else, he has provided the vocal parts and the figured bass. He seems to have only written the first 8 bars of the Lacrimosa (Constanze said this was his last act before dying), the rest being written by Sussmayr, and Sussmayr also claimed the Osanna fugues and the last three movements (Sanctus, Bennedictus and Agnus Dei) as his creations, not Mozart’s.

Throughout the Requiem, there is ample evidence of Sussmayr’s contributions in the form of numerous voice-leading errors and incorrect transpositions (mistakes which simply don’t exist in any other work of Mozart’s), and in orchestrations that sometimes seem out of character.

In recent decades, scholars have attempted everything from a simple publication of the “Sussmayr” version with the mistakes and wrong notes corrected, to a version that presents only the music we can more or less prove is Mozart’s (the Richard Maunder edition is probably the most radical of these, although I have not had the chance to study his score in depth, only to flip through in a library once for a few minutes) to versions that keep Sussmayr’s compositional contributions while re-orchestrating the piece more in the style of Mozart’s other music (the Franz Beyer editions, the 1979 edition was the first version of the piece I conducted), to those that try to re-do what Sussmayr might have done if he’d been more skilled. The Robert Levin edition is the best known of these- it goes fairly far in attempting to “fix” counterpoint in all the movements, not only the last three, and, most boldly, gives us an Amen fugue (listen to an excerpt) at the end of the Lacrimosa (Robert Levin has the kind of brain that allows him to dispense with Mozartian fugues faster than I can churn out blog posts). In the 1960’s, Mozart’s sketch for this fugue was found, so we know that he intended to end the first half of the Requiem with a fugue, so Levin is on solid ground historically, but many listeners will be hopelessly attached to the original ending. He also re-writes the two Osanna fugues.

In the end, I’ve opted to use the NMA edition of the Requiem (edited by Leopold Nowak), which is just the “old” Sussmayr version corrected as much as the editors thought possible. It is not without its flaws, but I cannot in good conscience choose another version.

The problem is that it is actually quite impossible to tell where Mozart leaves off and Sussmayr picks up- we know that any mistakes are Sussmayr, but those are easy to fix. However, it doesn’t take much effort to prove pretty conclusively that Sussmayr was lying when he claimed to have written the last three movements himself.

The simple fact is that, Sussmayr’s own music shows him to have been a Singspiel composer first and foremost- almost an 18th c. Broadway composer. His music is simple and relatively one-dimensional. There is nothing anywhere in his own music as sophisticated and learned as what we find in the Sanctus, Bennedictus and Agnus Dei.

It is the thematic makeup of these movements that make it clear that Sussmayr could not have written them. The main theme of the Sanctus is the same as that of the Dies Irae- a transformation that Sussmayr had neither the talent nor imagination to come up with. Likewise, the Osanna fugue subject begins with the first four notes of the Recordare theme, followed by the theme of the Requiem in inversion. In the Bennedictus, the bridge material in bars 18-20 is taken from the “Et lux perpetua” music of the Introitus.  Finally, the Agnus Dei is not only partly paraphrased from an early Mozart work (K 220), the bass line is the Requiem theme, and the violin figuration ends with the Requiem theme in retrograde and includes an elaborated quote of the fugue theme of the Kyrie. On top of that, the harmonic writing is some of the most sophisticated in all of Mozart- Sussmayr could never, ever have conceived it, let alone executed it.

In fact, there is plenty of testimony from Mozart’s wife that he attempted to instruct Sussmayr in how the piece should be completed, and that he left “scraps of paper” with musical ideas for the rest of the work. The sketch for the Amen fugue proves there were sketches for the piece beyond what Mozart had completed- I’m quite sure that Sussmayr had access to sketches that he lost or destroyed for the entire work, including these movements. Based on that, I feel very uncomfortable saying- “this is from Mozart and that is from Sussmayr,” because we just can’t know. For instance, Beyer keeps the repeated notes in the upper strings which follow the choir’s “Sanctus” (which remember, is a quote from the Dies Irae). Levin replaces those with a seemingly more “Mozartian” counter melody (listen here to Levin, and here to Sussmayr). In principal, I can see his point, but his solution sounds quite unconvincing to me. More importantly, in the Dies Irae, the melody (remember, it’s the same melody- in the most harrowing and hopeful moments of the Requiem) is also answered by repeated pitches in the strings (you can hear the opening of the Dies Irae here). Given that (and the fact that the new music sounds out of character with the movement, in my opinion) I think Levin’s got it wrong here, unless he wants to insert that little twirly gesture into the Dies Irae.

To me, it’s not the kind of piece you want to get things wrong in- again and again scholars have rationalized why this or that bit of the piece was “inferior” and therefore Sussmayr, only for later historical or analytical information to come to light which proves it had to be Mozart.

Finally, on a poetic note- we know that the Requiem is, among other things, a harrowing document of a race and a battle against its creator’s death- and a horrible death at that. Sussmayr was clearly much less accomplished in the study of counterpoint and orchestration than modern scholars like Levin and Beyer, but he was a witness to Mozart’s final struggle. Remembrance, bearing witness- these are a fundamental part of the human experience of death and dying (Gerhard Samuel’s “Requiem for Survivors” is a fascinating study on the place of the “survivor” and is based on the last bars of the Lacrimosa- “music written by a survivor.” *). I do think there is something real in the contribution of the younger man, whose compassion and horror at the master’s suffering seems to have imprinted itself into the piece. I can suffer a few parallel fifths to keep that kind of a human document a part of our musical life.


* An interesting story about Gerhard, the Mozart Requiem and his Requiem for Survivors (available here on CD). Gerhard paired these two works for his final concert as conductor of the CCM Philharmonia when we went on tour to Portugal in 1998. Gerhard used the Beyer version of the Requiem (it was through Gerhard that I got to know the Beyer) because he felt the orchestration was more Mozartian than the NMA/Sussmayr. However- although Beyer keeps the Lacrimosa we all know, he re-writes the last two bars. It wouldn’t make sense to have a piece based on music from the Requiem in the first half of the concert and then not have that music make its rightful appearance in the second half, so Gerhard restored the original Sussmayr ending. Incidentally, the Sussmayr ending is also better, in my opinion, than the Beyer- again, as with the Levin Sanctus, if you’re going to change something, make sure it’s clearly better, which is not always as easy as it sounds.


Copyrighted material is excerpted here under Fair Use provisions of relevant copyright law for educational purposes only, and will be removed on request.

The Robert Levin version of the Requiem can be heard on this recording from Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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4 comments on “Who wrote the Mozart Requiem?”

  1. Pingback: Mozart Requiem

  2. Pingback: Attributions, completions, hoaxes and other things. . .

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  4. Jorge Héreth

    The Requiem, KV. 626, last part, the “Libera me, Domine”, was completed in Rio de Janeiro by Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (Salzburg, 1778 – Paris, 1858) between 1816 and 1820, most likely with an important collaboration of a local priest and composer, José Maurício Nunes Garcia (Rio de Janeiro, RJ: 1767 – Rio de Janeiro, RJ: 1830)

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