Mozart Requiem- quotation and meaning

I think one perceptible evolution in my study habits and interests over the last few years has been that I’ve gotten more and more interested in quotation in music.

Of course, I suppose I may be putting my neck on the block a bit admitting that, because implicit in the statement is the notion that at somepoint in the past I wasn’t as interested in quotation as I should have been. Perhaps as this blog hits cyberspace, smug conductors and musicologists around the world are stroking their black moustaches, muttering “See- Woods has just discovered quotation. I always had him pegged for a fraud!”

So, maybe I should make clear that I’m just finding more success and satisfaction studying with an eye and ear for quotation than in the past.

Anyway, on a purely practical level, knowing all the quotes in a piece of music for a conductor is a bit like loading a weapon that can never be fired. To put it in more practical terms: nothing is more likely to make an orchestra start rolling their eyes in rehearsal than some conductor telling them “this passage is a quote from the St Matthew Passion, but upside down and backwards in a bi-tonal context.” If you’re lucky, you might get off with a “ah Maestro, I see you read the program notes from the Bernstein recording too.” If you’re unlucky, they’ll just silently judge you.

Some quotes are too cool to keep to yourself- if you really think a quote is so killer, so awesome so amazing, that it’s worth risking the eye-rolls, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I told an orchestra the other night about the B-A-C-H quotes in Schumann 2. I hope the damage is not permanent- they took it pretty well. I even got an “oh- cool” from a violinist (who I won’t betray by identifying her in print).

Anyway, quotes are much on my mind, as the Mozart Requiem is full of quotations and references. The main “Requiem” theme, the DNA of which permeates the entire work, is, in fact, a quote. This melody (d-c#-d-e-f) is from a Lutheran hymn, “When My Final Hour is At Hand.” If you’re trying to figure out how much truth there is to the stories of Mozart’s reportedly saying that he was writing “my own Requiem,” the fact that the main theme of the entire piece is attached to the words “My Final Hour” rather than his, hers, ours or theirs is worth knowing.

Then, figure in the fact that Mozart was not the first to use that theme- Handel’s “The Way’s of Zion do Mourn” (which you can hear a short excerpt of here), written 54 years earlier. Mozart knew his Handel- he even made his own performing version of Messiah. Handel’s text (all taken from Lamentations) depicts a whole world overcome with sadness- “The ways of Zion do mourn and she is in bitterness; all her people sigh and hang down their heads to the ground.”

So, in this opening, Mozart is already combing the personal with the universal- the terror of the one facing “my final hour” with the grief of the nation in the face of incalculable loss.

I can still remember hearing this piece for the first time- it is one of the earliest musical memories of my childhood. This very opening appeared in a dramatization of Mozart’s life for radio I heard when I was about 5. I remember thinking it was the saddest music I’d ever heard. I still feel that way- knowing where Mozart took his building blocks from doesn’t change my understanding of or reaction to the music. Sad music sounds sad– you don’t need an owner’s manual to understand it.

But, I now think I could feel, even as a naïve child hearing the piece for the first time, the presence of these quotes and these levels of meaning. This is the mystery of music- piece affects you with of all the layers of meaning in contains, whether you have the knowledge or experience to identify them or not. This theme permeates and its extrapolations, derivations and evolutions permeate the entire Requiem (including the movements supposedly written by Sussmayr). That it is not simply the notes d-c#-d-e-f but a hymn with a text and a history means that when Mozart when Mozart brings it back in the last 5 bars of the Lacrimosa as the last melodic idea of the first half of the Requiem (don’t tell me that was Sussmayr’s idea) he’s not merely creating a kind of thematic unity, but something deeper and more personal.

In fact, the other main melodic idea of the first movement, first heard in the soprano solo in bar 21 (“Te decet hymnus Deus in Zion”) is also a quote. This melody (d-f-d-d-eb-d-c-bb) also has a history. It is another Lutheran hymn “Meine seele erhebet den Herren” or “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Bach used this melody, also called the German Magnificat, in his Cantata BWV 10, which shares the same title, but it also appears in several other Bach works. The history of this hymn goes all the way back to Gregorian chant and a family of chants known as “Pilgrim’s tones.” How appropriate then that when the chorus takes up this melody in bar 27 (when the sopranos sing “Ex audie orationem meam”), Mozart sets the text as a perfect imitation of a Bach-ian chorale prelude. I’ve even considered using a childrens chorus to double the women here for that very reason.

On top of this, Mozart was NOT the first composer to use this hymn for the “Te decet..” (the Latin here means “A hymn, O God, beckoneth Thee in Zion, And a vow shall be made to Thee in Jerusalem- “Hear My Payer…”). Michael Haydn did so in his Requiem, which Mozart sang as a chorister in his youth. You can hear the excerpt here. Haydn’s treatment is freer, but it’s definitely the same material. What does it mean? Is it a simple shout out to a fellow-Requiem master, a short-cut from a composer who was desperate to meet a deadline? I don’t think so, but to guess at the motivations of a genius like Mozart is foolish. All I can say with certainty is that there is more here than meets the eye, or the ear.

But, I won’t be telling the band this next week. Can’t face the eye rolls. That’s why I’ve got this blog.

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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.

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9 comments on “Mozart Requiem- quotation and meaning”

  1. John

    These posts are so excellent! Thank you!

    I have to agree with your observations for the Levin completion on your previous posts. There is something about the Amen fugue that is just not right. In fact, dare I say, it is almost egotistical in a way. Having sung the tenor line of that version a few years ago, there are voice leading problems that Mozart would never have approved of (including melodic augmented seconds on at least one occasion!)

    Quotation in music is such an interesting subject as well – have you seen the latest article about Ravel’s quotations? awfully interesting.

  2. David

    I’ve enjoyed reading these two Requiem posts. The earlier sums up the history of the piece succinctly. I’ve conduted the piece several times and each time ponder the various versions. I completely concur with you that the Sussmayer is the best choice — for all of it’s flaws and occasional “chunkiness.’ Your later post is also interesting: you may also know that the “Te Decet” is a direct quote of a plainchant reciting tone: the “tonus peregrinus,” — “wandering” because it employs two reciting tones rather than the usual single reciting pitch.

    I have enjoyed reading your posts over the last couple of years — got to you through Dick Spark’s blog. I am a fellow U of Wisconsin grad, and also was at Cincinnati while Gerhard was there (doing a DMA in choral conducting) — perhaps some day we’ll cross paths in real life!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David- Welcome and thanks for the comment

    Indeed, I debated whether to mention the “tonus peregrinus,” but it gives me good cause to mention Christoph Wolf’s excellent book on the Requiem which traces all the quotes and models throughout the piece in more detail than I could.

    Some scholars caution against equating the “Meine seele” theme with the “tonus peregrinus” because they now believe that that term refered to all plainchants that used the technique of a changeable recitation tone, not only the one which the hymn evolved from.

    In any case, I do hope our paths cross soon- it’s such a small field to begin with

    All best!


  4. Elaine Fine

    I like to think of the “quotes” in the Requiem as Mozart paying homage to and participating in the Parody Mass tradition. Perhaps they are there to kind of keep a “toe” in the sacred stream of sacred music rather than a set of messages in code to the conductors and scholars of the future.

    Last year I had the opportunity to play the viola part of Mozart’s transcription of “The Messiah.” It was an awesome experience– and one that somehow helped a great deal to “inform” my sense of the Requiem because it reveals just how much admiration Mozart had for Handel.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    I absolutely agree without about the relation to the tradition of Parody Mass- throughout the Requiem, Mozart seems to have gone to great pains to dislodge the piece from his exact historical moment. It’s not music of 1791- it’s music that has roots in chant, in hymns, in earlier Masses, Requiems and Anthems, but also that reaches forward. It’s not surprising that Bruckner saw it is one of his two great musical models (the other being Beethoven 9).

    In the interests of space, I didn’t really go into the fact that the Recordare is based on a Sinfonia by WF Bach or that the Kyrie Fugue is the fugue of Handel’s Dettingem Anthem, transformed from D Major to D minor- another telling indication of Mozart’s love of Handel.

    What a treat to hear from you, Elaine!!!!!


  6. Zoltan

    (I’ll get stoned for this, nevertheless) I’m no big fan of Mozart (or the classical period). Yet, when I listened to the Requiem in my teen years the first time, I always had to think: “this sounds like baroque music, and not like Mozart (especially the Kyrie fugue)”. And since I always loved (late) baroque music I thought it might be just that I’m hearing what I know and like — seems like my musical instincts were right after all.

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  8. Oliver Pretzel

    It’s a bit late for this comment, but it may be of interest.
    The chorale melody of “Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist” (“When my final hour is at hand”) does not contain the sequence d-c#-d=e f used by Mozart and Handel You can check that at

    The sequence does occur in another more famous chorale “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, albeit with a different rhythm. ( The change in rhythm does seem to be significant, since in the chorale the c# and e are on stressed beats, whereas in Handel and Mozart it is the d and f.

    It would be most interesting to know where this them really originated. Maybe the book by Christoph Wolff, which I do not have has more to say on this.

  9. Kenneth Woods

    @Oliver Pretzel

    I believe the connection is found in from the pickup to the 5th bar of the Bach setting E-F-E-D-C, which is an inversion of the Mozart theme.

    Well spotted the reference to Christ lag…

    Thanks for writing! Sorry for the long delay in responding

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