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Dies Irae: Mozart’s Requiem

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Did I not tell you that I was composing this ‘Requiem’ for myself?
  – Mozart, reportedly on the day of his death

Final page of Mozart's Requiem, in his own hand

Commissioned anonymously by Count Franz von Walsegg and left unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death, the Requiem mass in D minor has been the stuff of legend for centuries. Its mythology has been amplified for recent generations by the Miloš Forman film Amadeus – a film that shows about as much concern for historical fact as The Da Vinci Code. But at the center of this myth-making lies an extraordinary achievement by one of the greatest musical minds in history.

I am rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with an amateur choir and have undertaken a study of the piece, and like so many before me, I have been stunned by its richness. As my inimitable choirmaster pointed out, Mozart seized every opportunity for musical development, with countless variations and extensions pushing the development constantly forward.

A simple melody may return for a second visit, having grown three measures longer and trailing filigree ornament like a lace train behind it. On its third appearance, it may have doubled in length and taken flight as one voice in a four-part fugue.

I’d like to point out a few highlights of the Requiem‘s structure, and then tie in some broader reflections on Mozart’s style and biography. I’ve posted some YouTube clips from a lovely performance, with John Eliot Gardiner leading the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, so you can follow along if you like.

The first clip begins the mass with two closely-related movements, the Introitus and the Kyrie (the latter begins around 4:41). For our first analysis, why don’t you have a listen, and give a little attention to how the piece is organized, and how its structure changes as it moves along. I’ll wait here till you’re done.

Okay, then. Nice, isn’t it?

The tension and development in the Introitus derive largely from its movement back and forth between its homophonic organization in chords, as you would often find in the music of Beethoven, and its polyphonic arrangement in different voices, as you often find in the music of Bach. Notice how the voices begin polyphonically with the “Requiem aeternam” at around 0:47, with each of the four vocal sections starting at a different time, and pursuing their own independent melodic course.

The Introitus generally uses chords for emphasis, as when the four vocal divisions come together emphatically for the “… dona eis, Domine….” around 1:20, and continue in lock step for several measures. Then, following the lovely solo, the voices drift apart again into independent melodic lines.

Notice how, at 3:16, the alto section suddenly branches off into an independent melody with its lovely “Dona eis,” floating above the bass.

Once you’ve got a sense of this glorious little line, skip back to 1:52, and you’ll hear the melody first being introduced by the strings, preparing us for the breakaway appearance in the vocals. It comes again through the strings at 2:14, ornamenting the solo.

By the time the Kyrie erupts at 4:40, in the glorious Baroque style of Bach and Handel, each of the four vocal sections present a fugue based in part on that melody, and we are ready for it.

We’ve moved between two completely different methods of organizing musical ideas, and the effect is achieved so gracefully that one might not even notice that anything happened. Mozart prepared the listener for what is to come, and the transition feels as natural as the arrival of spring.

The Domine Jesu contains so many good musical ideas, I hardly know where to begin. Notice what happens at 1:20, when the principle theme is restated by different soloists in different modes.

For a technical account of what is occurring in this movement, let’s consult musicologist Christoph Wolff:

In the “Domine Jesu” Mozart works with the triadic head motive in a way that allows the melodic element (which is the prominent factor in the movement) to become the peg on which the harmonic developments are hung. … The rising series of statements of the head motive, in alternately minor and major keys, is given to the soprano alone, but it prepares the imitative development (bars 32ff.) carried out by all four voices in descending canons at the fifth. The imitative working exploits the motive’s ambivalent major/minor third … and thus extracts the quintessence of the separate major and minor versions of it. (1)

I was not surprised by the technical brilliance of the mass’s construction, which I have come to expect, given the scope of Mozart’s genius. What sets this work apart for me is its tone – its uncharacteristic gravity, which is quite distinct from the relentless whimsy that typifies most of his music.

This account by his Austrian contemporary agrees with his popular persona:

One day when I was sitting at the pianoforte playing the ‘Non più andrai’ from Figaro, Mozart, who was paying a visit to us, came up behind me … sat down, told me to carry on playing the base, and began to improvise such wonderfully beautiful variations that everyone listened … But then he suddenly tired of it, jumped up, and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, he began to leap over tables and chairs, miaow like a cat, and turn somersaults like an unruly boy. (2)

That anarchic sense permeates nearly every piece he wrote. Take, for example, Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Unlike the Requiem, the C minor Mass cannot suppress its playful spirit for long. The opening Kyrie begins in an introspective mood before flipping to B flat major for the Christe at 2:20. This aria, I submit, could be inserted into a comic opera about star-crossed young lovers with the music unchanged.

Glenn Gould, in an interview with Bruno Monsaingeon, describes the problem thus:

GG: I think that when generations of listeners – laymen particularly, because their views usually have an intuitive edge over musicians’ – have found it appropriate to attribute terms like “lightness,” “ease,” “frivolity,” “gallantry,” “spontaneity” to Mozart, it behooves us to at least think about the reason for these attributions – which are not necessarily borne of a lack of appreciation or charity. I think that to a lot of people – and I include myself among them – the words imply not a criticism of what Mozart offers us but a hint of he doesn’t offer. I always think of an extraordinary concept in an essay on Mozart by the theologian Jean Le Moyne, who also happens to be a most perceptive musical layman. In the essay Le Moyne tries to come to grips with just what it was that alienated him from Mozart. And he discovered that in his youth he had mistrusted any art that had, as he put it, “pretensions to self-sufficiency,” but that later, having come to realize that genius is somehow related to an ability to understand the world, he nevertheless continued to require of every artist what he called “the polarization, the haste, and the progress” that he observed in the lives of the mystics.

BM: I presume he didn’t find that in Mozart.

GG: No. As a matter of fact, he likened Mozart to Don Giovanni, who he claimed was really Cherubino returned form military service. He said that … “despite his easy grace and virtuosity, Don Giovanni doesn’t possess himself sufficiently to belong definitely to the absolute and to march unwaveringly towards the silence of being.” (3)

It is funny to see Gould invoke the “silence of being,” as he himself clearly prefers the lyricism of Bach to the profundity of Beethoven. But I quite agree with his general point. Mozart’s outlook was essentially comic, and I’m unable to find profundity or depth in most of his oeuvre, even in the Jupiter symphony or Don Giovanni.

But I do find it in the Requiem.

It seems that the subject of this mass and the encroaching immediacy of his own death displaced his manic impulses. As he worked frantically on the Requiem in his final days, he increasingly became convinced that his own death was drawing near.

Years earlier, Mozart had written to his father: “Young as I am, I never go to bed without thinking that possibly I may not be alive on the morrow; yet not one of the many persons who know me can say that I am morose or melancholy. For this happy disposition I thank my Creator daily, and wish with all my heart that it were shared by all my fellows.” (4)

The terror of mortality could not have been far from his mind when he scored Dies Irae, setting these frightful words to music:

The day of wrath, that day of grief shall change the world to glowing ash, as David and the Sibyl tell. How great a quaking day the judge shall there be, when on that day the judge shall come, to weigh men’s deeds in each detail.

In this clip of Dies Irae, notice how the music itself begins to shake, just as the text evokes the quaking of dread (“Quantus tremor est futurus…”) at 1:01:

The bass trembles, first in a half-step tremolo, then in increasingly-remote intervals as the piece threatens to fly apart at 1:21. It is difficult to listen to the Dies Irae without believing that Mozart felt the full force of the Day of Judgement at hand.


(1) Wolff C. trans. by Mary Whittall. Mozart’s Requiem. University of California Press. 1994. p. 101.
    My full review can be found here.
(2) Melograni P. trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography. University of Chicago Press. 2008. p. 184
(3) Gould G. ed. Tim Page. “Of Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon.” from The Glenn Gould Reader. Vintage Books. 1984. pp. 42-3
(4) Kerst F, trans. Henry Edward Krehbiel. Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own Words. Public Domain. Accessed via Project Gutenberg.


Written by Mesocosm

February 17, 2012 at 8:52 am

Posted in Music

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