Mozart wrote church music prolifically during his apprenticeship in Salzburg, his birthplace (where he was in the service of the Prince-Archbishop). After this move to Vienna, and the incomplete C-minor Mass of 1783, he attempted no more sacred works until his final year, choosing to focus his attention mostly on operas and piano concerti - genres more likely to lead to fame and fortune. Even symphonic works were relatively few: Mozart's final three symphonies were composed during the summer of 1788, apparently - and most unusually - 'on spec', with no particular prospects for performance. So a concert featuring this final two sacred pieces and one of his last three symphonies, even if today these are among his most familiar compositions, represents a Mozartian exception and not the rule.
Mozart probably composed Sancta Maria, mater Dei for the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on 8th September 1777, perhaps as a votive offering to the Virgin, prior to setting out with his mother on the long journey to Paris that culminated not with the anticipated triumph but with his mother's death. We include it because of its relationship to the late Ave verum Corpus, which it prefigures. Some of the similarities -their simple structures, vocal lines and accompaniments for strings and organ only - are relatively superficial. On a deeper level, both are preoccupied with the melodic interval of a fourth. But the earlier work is overlaid with florid, operatic gestures; heard retrospectively, in relation to the majestically unadorned Ave verum Corpus, it sounds insecure, nervous, generically Classical: music that is eager to please.
Ave verum Corpus is the last sacred work that Mozart completed before his early death. He wrote it in June 1971, apparently for his friend Anton Stoll, a schoolteacher and choirmaster in Baden (near Vienna); it may have been intended for the feast of Corpus Christi. Both Ave verum Corpus and the earlier Sancta Maria, mater Dei are Gradualia, setting portions of the Proper of the Mass. Aver verum Corpus can be heard as an aural Pieta, the painting or sculpture that depicts the weeping Virgin holding the body of the dead Christ, whose most famous exemplar is the Michelangelo marble in St Peter's Basilica. Like that breathtaking statue, its surface simplicity arises from the greatest artistic sophistication, realized in perfectly judged proportions. Pared of any excess gesture, it is music distilled to its essence.
Each of Mozart's final three symphonies exemplifies a particular aspect of his manifold skills. The Jupiter exhibits contrapuntal craft at its highest elevation. No. 40, in G minor, possesses the tense instability and chromaticism that were becoming characteristic of minor-key music. No. 39, the symphony we play this evening, is the lyrical member of this triptych - Mozart's equivalent, perhaps, to Beethoven's Pastoral. For Mozart, E-flat, together with C major, was the preferred key for 'public' music; many of his works in E-flat begin, as this one does, with fanfares. The composer quickly takes us, however, to an interior world of dancing, not in country villages as with Haydn or Beethoven, but in aristocratic ballrooms.
It is possible that Mozart was working on the Ave verum Corpus when he received the anonymous commission for a requiem - a Catholic burial mass - and with its shared theme of death, the shorter piece may have become a preparatory exercise for the Requiem. But the Ave verum Corpus was to be Mozart's last completed sacred work. On 5th December 1791 he died, leaving the Requiem incomplete.
Any unfinished work of art is a mystery and a romance. Several of the composers most beloved of audiences - Bach, Schubert, Mahler - left major works incomplete and this adds to the fascination of their oeuvres and their lives. But the Requiem, above all, with its enigmatic inception and its composer's early death, is suffused in tragic mystery. For the listener, the incompleteness of the Requiem intensifies its romance. For the performer, it has created a number of problems.
The story is this: Mozart had completed the Introitus in its entirety, as well as the vocals parts, some of the bass lines and occasional details of other instrumental parts of the Kyrie and Sequence - through the eighth measure of the Lacrimosa - and the Offertorium. But the remainder was left to his young students Joseph Eybler (who accomplished little before returning the score to Mozart's widow Constanze as beyond his capacities) and Franz Xavier Süßmayr to complete.
In accordance with Mozart's instructions and cotemporary style, Süßmayr reused the music of the Introitus (from its nineteenth measure) and Kyrie for the final section, the Communio, adjusting note values as needed to correspond to the different text, and thereby permitting the Requiem to end with the same music with which it had begun, in an implicit affirmation of the cycle of life and rebirth. Süßmayr also completed the Lacrimosa, filled in missing voices and orchestrated those parts that Mozart had not. And, according to his own assertion, he composed the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei himself. It is in this form that 'Mozart's Requiem' has most frequently been heard since its first performance in December 1793, two years after Mozart's death.
None of this would be a problem if Süßmayr had been a more able composer. Unfortunately, the score he left to posterity is filled with difficulties of several kinds: technical, stylistic and qualitative. The technical problems are simply errors of voice-leading and instrumental balance that, while understandable in an inexperienced student (as Süßmayr was), would not have been acceptable to Mozart (or any other competent professional).
The stylistic problems relate to conventions prevalent at the time, which Mozart, had he lived, would certainly have observed. We have already mentioned the recapitulation of the Introitus music for the Communio - and this Süßmayr successfully accomplished. But surely Mozart would have concluded the Lacrimosa with a fugue extensive enough to balance the enormous scope of the Sequence (sketches exist). Moreover, while Süßmayr did provide fugal Osannas [sic] for the Sanctus and Benedictus, as convention dictated, these are far too perfunctory to deserve the name 'fugue'. With regard to the Sanctus and Benedictus (which ostensibly Süßmayr composed in their entirety), even if one accepts that Mozart might have written the two movements in different keys, it is inconceivable that he would not have returned at the end of the Benedictus to the key of the Sanctus, so that the Hosanna could be reprised as was customary.
The qualitative questions relate to those movements that Süßmayr asserted he had composed himself: the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The chief issue is whether he was telling the whole truth; nothing in his later output (though he eventually was to become Imperial Court Theatre Conductor and Composer) suggests that he had the capacity to create music of such solemn power. It is likely that he worked from suggestions left by Mozart, but unless sketches turn up that can shed light on the matter, we will never be certain how much of this music is Mozart and how much Süßmayr.
This situation has provoked a variety of responses. Many performers leave well enough alone and present Süßmayr's version, with or without technical corrections. A few omit the three movements that Süßmayr claimed to have composed, and sometimes even the Communio, presenting the work as a torso and thereby reinforcing the sense of loss it projects. However, recent years have given us a number of new editions of excellent quality by experts whose familiarity with Mozart's style (having the benefit of 200 years of scholarship) exceeds even that of his students. They make differing choices from each other with regard to the unusual paradox this work presents: Süßmayr's version is familiar to us through repetition, and no matter how inferior to what surely would have emerged had Mozart lived longer, it is still of his time, and is given legitimacy by this patina of age.
Franz Beyer's is the most restrained of these recent editions and for this reason is the one we prefer for this evening's performance. He refrains from recomposing Süßmayr's contributions, but corrects error of basic technique, while revising the orchestral parts extensively to restore balances to the clarity that Mozart would likely have achieved. He chooses to err on the side of caution and familiarity in conceding the omission of a concluding fugue in the Lacrimosa, and adds only four cadential measures to the two Hosannas, accepting their unlikely brevity instead of composing a new fugue based on the traditional Mozart Requiem. However, while we applaud the editor's respect for the form in which this masterwork has been handed down to us, the lack of a return, in the Benedictus, from B-flat major to the Sanctus (D being the tonic note of the entire Requiem) is a grossly audible stylistic transgression. We have therefore recast the transition so that the Hosanna can be recapitulated in its original key.
- Jerome Hoberman -