Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Requiem in D minor

K626, KV626 • “Mass No.19”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

E.T.A. Hoffmann once wrote that "Mozart's] Requiem is the sublimest achievement that the modern period has contributed to the church." Mozart's deathbed composition held a high appeal for the nineteenth century; in the supposedly more rational twentieth, it ascended to truly iconic status. It did so despite fundamental mysteries of its composition and even its authenticity, mysteries still unsolved in the twenty-first century. Something in the music's gravitas and subtlety touches each successive generation.

A tangled skein of myths and fairy tales imagine the deathbed genius collapsing upon his manuscript (myths powerfully reinforced by the 1984 film Amadeus), but many facts about the piece are clear. The Countess von Walsegg passed away in February 1791. The Count commissioned a requiem mass from Mozart via a clerk (the "Grey Messenger" of Requiem-mythology). Mozart accepted the job for his unknown patron, having desired to compose some "higher form of church music" (his Ave verum corpus reflects the same wish). After working on the Requiem through October and Novmeber, however, Mozart fell ill and died without completing it. Mozart's widow, needing money, arranged for his friends and pupils to complete the other movements. The Count eventually received a complete Requiem, which he tried to pass off as his own composition; the bulk of this copy derives from the hand of Franz Süssmayr. Scholars have diligently attempted to distinguish Mozart's work from Süssmayr's mishandling of his intentions.

Mozart's Requiem contains five sections, each capped by a fugue: Requiem/Kyrie, Sequence ("Dies Irae"), Offertory, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Throughout, choral writing drives Mozart's music; even the four soloists rarely sing alone. The darkly colored orchestra supports the choir with often vivid motives. This pictorial aspect is most evident in the Sequence: "Tuba mirum" (solo trombone), "Rex tremendae" (regal dotted-rhythms), "Confutatis" (fiery accompaniment), and "Lachrymosa" (sighing strings). Not only do individual movements display an extraordinary level of motivic unity, Mozart carefully creates motivic relationships across the entire Requiem. The very first melody sung by the basses ("Requiem aeternam"), for instance, is repeated at the very end and also echoes throughout the work; the opening melody of "Dies irae" translates into major mode to open the "Sanctus." Mozart is never afraid, however, of acknowledging his debt to earlier traditions of church music. His fugues deliberately reference Bach, and in the first movement alone he quotes from Michael Haydn's Requiem, Handel's funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, Messiah, and the Gregorian chant known as the "Pilgrim's Tone."