Concert to Come: Mozart’s “Requiem in d minor”

The Kansas City Symphony and Chorus will perform the popular art work October 20 – 23.


Were it not for the dubious dealings of his devoted widow, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in d minor may have become an obscure footnote in his catalog, buried, so to speak, with the composer in a common grave, anonymous and incomplete, instead of becoming and remaining one the most popular works in the Classical repertoire.

The significance of this work in our social consciousness cannot be overstated. The completed sections were performed at Mozart’s own funeral and the full work performed at the funerals of Joseph Haydn and Frédéric Chopin, and for President John F. Kennedy’s memorial service in Boston in 1964. More recently, a series of Requiem performances swept across the globe in an international commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. This year, locally, it was used to honor the lives lost in Orlando in June.

The Kansas City Symphony and Chorus will perform the work Oct. 21-23. It was last performed by the ensemble in 2006 and this is the first performance in Helzberg Hall. Michael Stern, music director for the Kansas City Symphony, described the work as “a personal reflection of Mozart’s personal innermost feelings and state of mind, and the painful awareness that he was facing his own mortality.”

The Work

Unfinished at the time of the composer’s death in 1791, the Requiem continues to incite macabre curiosity, propagated by Constanze Mozart’s own storytelling of a cloaked stranger with an anonymous request and the dramatic fiction of modern myth-making based on nebulous details and historical fallacies (with the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie Amadeus at the forefront).

In truth, the work was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg to commemorate the death of his wife. Walsegg tended to anonymously commission works, then present the work as his own. Constanze, in need of money, had the work completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and the premiere was given as a benefit performance for the widow.

[block pos=”right”] “For me the most affecting moments … are those that speak from the deepest and most private place in Mozart’s musical soul.”
— Michael Stern, Music Director, Kansas City Symphony [/block]

Süssmayr was not Constanze’s first choice nor, research shows, would he likely have been Mozart’s choice, either. (According to a later letter by Constanze, Mozart described Süssmayr as a “duck in a thunderstorm.”)

But Süssmayr’s completion was the first published edition and the go-to version for 200 years, despite part-writing and stylistic discrepancies. What is based on Mozart’s instructions and sketches and what are additions by Süssmayr and others is left to analysis and conjecture. More than a few composers and historians, though, have tried their hand at unraveling its history to create a more thorough and robust version.

Less than half of the manuscript is pure Mozart in structure and inspiration, leaving the remaining sections of the Mass subject to alteration. The Introitus (Requiem) and vocal lines of the Kyrie exude Mozart’s unquestionable brilliance and buoyant counterpoint. The Dies irae has portentous vocal writing, interjections from brass and timpani and incessant strings. The salvo from the solo trombone and corresponding bass solo line open the Tuba mirum, from one of the existing fragments.

Said Stern, “What is in Mozart’s hand is so ineffably him, his genius at its best, carries the day.”

In 1993 scholar and keyboardist Robert D. Levin released his reassessed score. He retained some previous additions where they fit but recast sections to align in a more Mozartean guise, to general critical acclaim and appreciation. He adheres successfully to Mozart’s ideas and practices, with motivic consistency and more transparent orchestral texture. For instance, in the Lacrimosa, which Mozart left unfinished after the first eight bars, Levin completes the work with a stylistically appropriate fugue on the “Amen.”

The Performance

It is the Levin completion that the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus will use. (Coincidentally, Levin will perform as soloist on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Symphony and guest conductor Bernard Labadie in November.)

“Levin, a great scholar and musician who thoroughly and intimately understands Mozart’s style, takes as much from Mozart as there is to take . . . with very little guesswork we hear the pure wrenching ache of this music,” wrote Stern.

Stern also cited the abilities of the Chorus. “The increasing excellence of the Chorus under Charles Bruffy allows us to aim even higher, and the Mozart Requiem is such a special creation . . . that certainly motivated me to revisit this great piece.”

“For me the most affecting moments — like the sublime vocal writing in the Recordare — are those that speak from the deepest and most private place in Mozart’s musical soul,” wrote Stern.

“This is Mozart facing a world wracked with doubt, and yearning for beauty and release, which makes it perfect for our time.”

The work is paired in performance with Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1, with guest artist Paul Jacobs playing the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant organ. Though from “vastly different sound worlds and intent,” explained Stern, the pieces are connected because “both composers managed to transcend the normal expectations that these two forms — a “symphony” which masks an organ concerto, and a requiem which is more a personal statement than a sacred service — would ordinarily suggest.”


But the intrigue is not finished. During the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair an original manuscript was displayed and a scrap was torn from the corner, believed to contain the last words Mozart ever wrote. The scrap has not been found, nor the vandalizer discovered, and the mystery of Mozart’s Requiem endures.

The Kansas City Symphony will perform Mozart’s Requiem and Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra at 7 p.m. Oct. 20; 8 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22; and 2 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall. For tickets, (816) 471-0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

  1. Pingback:KC Studio Sept/Oct 2016 | Proust Eats a Sandwich

Leave a Reply