Most everyone admires the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In his short 35 years on this earth, he left an incomparable body of work that never seems to slip out of style.
Why, then, would anyone question his final effort, the sublime “Requiem”? This choral classic stands among the pillars of Western music and airs out again this weekend in three performances by the Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
The thing is, Mozart never finished his “Requiem.” He died in December 1791 after a feverish rush to complete the score, the ink barely dry on a handful of sections and scattered vocal parts and harmonies throughout the rest. Just eight measures into the tear-jerking Lacrimosa, his pen falls silent. In a work stretching just under an hour, pure Mozart lasts about 20 minutes.
“I think on an emotional level, there’s a reaction to it where Mozart ended,” says James Bass, artistic director of the Master Chorale. “Whether this (incompleteness) creates a problem for the entire work, that’s up to the listener.”
So, who completed the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communion? Scholars credit Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, although many debate the veracity of this minor musician and how much of the “Requiem” was actually his. Historical records show that Sussmayr took notes and sketches of music Mozart had composed – even from other works - and incorporated them into the “Requiem.”
Others tinkered with completing to work, and modern scholars have added bits and pieces to what essentially is a puzzle comprised of disparate parts. Such facelifts have gone on for two centuries, including one as recently as 1989.
Most everyone agrees, however, that the “Requiem’’ should be viewed as a fragment and not a “complete’’ work. In fact, any additions after Mozart’s final notes should be disregarded altogether, argues Alfred Einstein in his book “Mozart: His Character, His Work.’’ After the Lacrimosa, he writes, “We need not concern ourselves with the rest of the work. The total impression is contradictory.”
Regardless of the debate, the “Requiem” remains a potent force as the composer’s personal expression about death. It had a profound impact on a new generation of composers, including Beethoven, who said: “If Mozart did not write the music, then the man who wrote it was a Mozart.”
Does all this fuss really matter to listeners today? Bass believes so. The work’s incompleteness gives it an aura of mystery, he says, and its flaws make it human. Many listeners go to concerts to hear the “Requiem” not just for what it is, but for what it might have been.
“For modern audiences, the fact that Mozart didn’t finish the ‘Requiem’ gives it a sense of mystique,” he says. “It’s both a negative and a positive, and people are actually interested in what wasn’t completed. It makes us wonder what it would have been like had he finished it. That resonates.”