Of the over 600 numbered works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), the three on this evening’s program have a very special place in his repertoire. The Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622, of 1791, displays the richly nuanced style of his last months of life in a unique work for what was in his time a little-exploited single-reed instrument. The delightful motet, Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, from 1773, is a glittering Italianate gem from his late teen years. And the Requiem, K. 626, also of 1791, a masterwork of astonishing power, still echoes with the story of its genesis and mystery of its completion, composed as it was as his life ebbed away.
The Clarinet Concerto was one of few late works that Mozart wrote without a commission. Apparently a labor of love for his friend Anton Stadler, a virtuoso clarinetist, the work still stands as a challenge to the technical ability and musical artistry of any performer. It is cast in the usual three-movement structure, the two outer movements in faster tempos than the middle movement. The character of the movements is traditional, as well: the first is generally cheerful, presenting its themes in exposition, development and recapitulation process; the second, of hauntingly beautiful lyrical quality, uncannily recalls music in The Magic Flute, written just months earlier; and the third is a merry and optimistic rondo.
The concerto’s history is not so straightforward. As the clarinet developed over the course of the 18th century, several cognate instruments grew along with it. One of these, the bassett horn, experienced a brief efflorescence from the 1770s until the early 19th century. The bassett horn was pitched in F or G, lower than the clarinet, and had a distinctive curved or angled shape. Its timbre, mellow and reedy, apparently suggested special applications to Mozart, who used it to advantage from the late 1770s onward in a number of works, notably the Serenade for 13 Winds, K. 316, a number of Masonic works, some small chamber pieces, two operas in 1791, and the Requiem. It was the bassett horn in G rather than the clarinet for which Mozart began writing his concerto. He completed the first movement in 1790, but then set it aside. In October and November of 1791 he took up the work again, recasting the existing movement for yet another relative, the clarinet in A—the typically-pitched clarinet of the time—and adding the remaining two movements. It is likely that Stadler developed and was the exclusive virtuoso on a special version of the clarinet which had an added section, extending its range downward; in the mid-20th century, Czech scholar and clarinettist Jiří Kratochvil named the instrument a bassett clarinet. Stadler would have performed the concerto on his unique instrument.
We may gauge the degree of Stadler’s virtuosity, and Mozart’s esteem for his artistry, by the musical and technical demands of the concerto. Large leaps and contrasting registers, difficult fingerings and register changes at a rapid pace, extensive arpeggios across the full range, and long melodic arches requiring extraordinary breath and embouchure control call for the greatest skill and care. Careful articulation, ineffable beauty of tone, and exquisite sensitivity to the sense of the music must also have characterized Stadler’s playing—and Mozart captured it all in this concerto.
During his pre-Vienna years, Mozart travelled several times to Italy, where he absorbed the light and charming style of that region’s music. In 1773 he visited Milan, frequented the opera, and hobnobbed with its performers. His compositions from that time benefitted not only from the bright, cheerful mood and florid ornaments of the Italian arias but also from the abilities of the singers of such music. Although it seems remarkable today that sacred music employed this secular style, such was the taste of that time. Mozart wrote Exsultate, jubilate for an opera star, the soprano castrato Veranzio Rauzzini, creating a kind of vocal concerto on sacred text. It is in three contrasting movements, with a dry recitative linking the first two of them. The famous sparkling third movement, using only the word “alleluja”, is a coloratura tour de force, perfectly capturing ebullient joy.
The Requiem is sacred music of quite another order, however. In the key of D minor, associated in Mozart’s works with ominous moods and dark supernatural forces, it contains a variety of styles: passages of contrapuntal intricacy that Mozart learned from Bach’s and Handel’s music; utterly moving homophony in the style Alfred Einstein called “humanistic” (such as Sarastro’s in The Magic Flute); and gracious lyrical melodies. The work is scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, mixed chorus, 2 bassett horns, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, strings, timpani, and organ. Myths still associated with the genesis and authenticity of the Requiem have been debunked in recent scholarship, especially that of Christoph Wolff in Mozart’s Requiem(1994). It is comforting to know now that neither his rival Salieri nor demonic forces were at play around the work. No mysterious stranger but an agent with whom Mozart was actually acquainted brought him the commission from Count Walsegg, who intended to pass the music off as his own for a Mass commemorating his late wife. As he worked on the Requiem from October to early December 1791, Mozart became increasingly ill and was aware that he was failing; according to witnesses, he thought he was composing the work for his own funeral. He did in fact die, of unusual but natural causes, on December 5. He had finished writing out the final fair copy of the vocal and most of the instrumental parts of the Requiem up to the end of the eighth measure of the “Lacrymosa”, the last movement in the funeral Sequence, “Dies irae”. (String and woodwind parts for the Kyrie were written out by his student Franz Joseph Freystädler.) Vocal portions, basso continuo, and parts of some instrumental interludes of the Offertory are also in his hand.
According to his widow Constanze, Mozart had given verbal instructions and made sketches and notes for the work’s completion. We now think his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, ten years Mozart’s junior and of merely conventional talent, hid the tangible information in order to use it to write out the rest of the work and then claim (as he later did) that he had created it all on his own. (Curious that a very gifted composer, his friend Joseph Eybler, could manage only a portion of the completion without those notes.) Today scholars think that after measure eight of the “Lacrymosa” movement, the vocal material and a good portion of the accompaniment in the Requiem are just Süssmayr’s working-out of Mozart’s sketches and ideas, and that Süssmayr’s original work consists of the less refined passages of the orchestral accompaniment, interludes, and orchestration. Many details throughout the Requiem proclaim Mozart’s authorship. Among the most surprising may be Mozart’s references to other works—other composers’ and his own. Remember his enormous affinity to late Baroque composers, a legacy of his association with Baron Gottfried van Swieten from 1782 onward. It is not so surprising, then, to find allusions to one of his favorite Baroque models, Handel, for themes of the “Introit” and the “Kyrie” fugue. Another model, a sinfonia in D-minor by W. F. Bach, is quoted in the beautiful “Recordare”. A remarkable self-reference occurs in the accompaniment of the “Lacrymosa”: ironically, this music previously served to underlay Papageno’s frantic thoughts about committing suicide in the Finale of The Magic Flute. (Have you remembered that Mozart thought the Requiem was for himself?)
Other Mozartian techniques are richly represented. Thematic relationships link movements accepted as authentic to Mozart with those supposedly by Süssmayr; Mozart had perfected this unifying practice some years earlier but it was likely not embraced by his student in 1791. For instance, note the scale-based opening motif of the “Dies irae”, “Sanctus”, “Confutatis”, and the more subtle “bones” of the opening of the “Agnus Dei”; and listen for the relationship of subject of the “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue to the subject of the “Osanna” fugues and the opening of the “Recordare”. And Mozart inhabits the astonishing enharmonic chromatic modulations in the “Hostias” and “Agnus Dei” (supposedly by Süssmayr), which recall but exceed the ingenious opening of the “Dissonant” string quartet in C, K. 465 (1785).
Mozart, a Catholic, was also a Freemason. As a Mason, Mozart understood death in a particular way, and the Requiem and the Masonic Funeral Music (Maurerische Trauermusik), K. 477 (1785) must have been uniquely linked in his thinking. Masonic connections are recognizable in the Requiem. For example, those who know music theory will recognize the frequency with which key centers change by the interval of a third, rather than by the typical fourth or fifth, especially in the more chromatic movements; the number three has Masonic significance. The bassett horn sonority throughout the Requiem is also important, recalling the sonority of his Masonic compositions and especially the Masonic Funeral Music. In that short and generally not well-known work, reeds—including the bassett horn--present recurring “sigh” motifs.
But the Masonic Funeral Music has another relationship with the “Lacrymosa” movement of the Requiem. Remember, after the eighth measure the “Lacrymosa” was not in Mozart’s own handwriting. That fact triggered a question of the authenticity of all but the first eight measures of the movement. In particular, suspicion rested on the setting of the “Amen”, which ends that movement on a very simple plagal cadence (like the Amen at the end of a hymn), especially because scholars found the beginning of a fugue that Mozart had sketched on the word “Amen”, in the same key and meter as the rest of the movement. Some believe that Süssmayr, incapable of creating a satisfactory fugue from Mozart’s short sketch (if indeed he knew of it), simply wrote the unsophisticated cadence instead. At least one recent redactor of the Requiem has created a full-blown “Amen” fugue in an attempt to finish the sketch left by Mozart. Not only does this grandiose ending change the nature of this haunting movement, it ignores the fact that there is in 1791 a precedent for Mozart’s having sketched material without then using it in a completed work. Earlier in the year he began composing a march for the beginning of Act II of The Magic Flute but put the sketch aside and created an entirely different march for that moment. Evidence within the opera suggests that Mozart realized that the melody in the sketch would have broken his structural design for the opera and deliberately abandoned that unfinished first idea. I believe the fugue sketch for the “Amen” met a similar fate, but for a different reason. The simple cadential setting of the word is, in my view, Mozart’s; it contains the same deep sigh motif that is so evident throughout the Masonic Funeral Music—and particularly the final sigh which ends on a major chord. In the “Lacrymosa”, Mozart appears to have been acknowledging the imminence of his death.
Modern alternative editions to the one attributed to Süssmayr are available today, but these seem to drift farther away from the Mozart original than even Süssmayr did, by changing or by eliminating what the editors think is not authentic to Mozart. Yet in spite of flaws, Süssmayr’s Mozart still survives and continues to be the touchstone for our experience of the Requiem.