Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfgang Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 (1791)

The Commission

During the summer of 1791 – some five months before his death – Mozart was anonymously commissioned to compose a Requiem Mass: a mass for the dead. More than any other single element, it was this anonymous commission that helped to later fuel the myth that Mozart had, in fact, been murdered.

Constanze Weber Mozart (1762-1842) in 1802, painted by Hans Hansen
Constanze Weber Mozart (1762-1842) in 1802, painted by Hans Hansen

In 1829, 38 years after his death, Mozart’s widow Constanze was interviewed by an English music publisher named Vincent Novello and his wife, Mary. Constanze purportedly told the Novellos that:

“Some six months before his death he was possessed with the idea of his being poisoned – ‘I know I must die’, he exclaimed, ‘someone has given me aqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death – for which they have ordered a Requiem. It is for myself that I am writing this.’”

(For our information, “aqua toffana” is a colorless and tasteless mixture containing arsenic, antimony, and lead that was invented in Naples in the seventeenth century as a cosmetic. However, we are told that young women used it quite successfully as a poison, young women “who wished to hasten the arrival of widowhood.”)

Back to Constanze Mozart’s assertion, made 38 years after her husband’s death, that Mozart – feverishly obsessed with premonitions of death – “knew” he was being poisoned and that the Requiem was intended to mark his own death.

The story is complete hokum and utter bunk.

Did Constanze Mozart simply lie when she told this story to Vincent and Mary Novello in 1829? Or did Constanze, having told and retold and embellished the story for nearly 40 years, simply come to believe it was true? Or perhaps the Novellos just made it up (though this is the least likely explanation given their well-earned reputation for accuracy).

Whatever the source of this story, it was a smoking gun that supported the myth that the poor, innocent Mozart had been whacked.

Back to the anonymous commission for Mozart’s Requiem.

In fact, the Requiem was not commissioned by a divine or diabolical messenger but rather, by a clerk who worked for a wealthy musical amateur named Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach (1763-1827). The Count had recently lost his twenty-year-old wife Anna (the grief-stricken count, only 28 himself at the time, would never remarry), and he wanted Mozart to compose a Requiem in her honor. In offering the commission, Count Walsegg remained anonymous because it was his “hobby” to commission works from professional composers and then pass them off as being his own. (I, for one, find it unfathomable that anyone would have believed that Count Walsegg could have composed any part of what was in fact Mozart’s Requiem. I would further suggest that as hobbies go, the Count would have been better off collecting stamps or Beanie Babies.) In any case, Mozart’s Requiem – left unfinished at his death – was not intended as his own funeral music. It was a gig, a composer-for-hire gig, and an extremely lucrative one at that.

The Torso

Mozart scholar Hermann Abert describes the Requiem as Mozart left it at his death:

“The first two movement [of 16] – the Introit and Kyrie – were both complete in Mozart’s score. Of the Dies irae, only the vocal parts and meticulously figured basso continuo [the bassline and shorthand indication of the harmonies] were written out in full, in keeping with Mozart’s usual practice. As for the instrumentation, only a handful of motifs were indicated in the preludes and interludes and at other characteristic points. All were intended to show how these passages should later be developed. The Lacrimosa breaks off at the words ‘qua resurget ex favilla judicandus homo reus.’ Of the Offertory, the Dominae Jesu and the Hostias were complete in draft score, while the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei are missing in their entirety.”

The Completion

Mozart’s widow Constanze, who would appear to have been a ditz-supreme during their marriage, turned out to be a hard-nosed businessperson who parlayed her dead husband’s music into a major fortune after his passing.

Following Mozart’s death (on December 5, 1791) and burial (on December 7, 1791), Constanze’s first concern was what to do with Wolfgang’s unfinished Requiem. She was rightly worried that its anonymous commissioner might not be willing to accept an unfinished work and, worse, might not pay the balance owed on the commission and might even demand a refund for payments already made! So she and the people advising her hatched a plan: to secretly complete the Requiem and pass it off to its anonymous commissioner as Mozart’s final, complete work.

Easier said than done, right? I mean, who in their right noggin would want to – secretly or not – complete a work begun by Mozart, for heaven’s sake!…

Continue reading, only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now