It has been asserted that the music you associate with your final year of high school assumes a special place in your memories for the rest of your life. For me, this is true. Whether it be the music of Rush, who I heard live for the first time in the fall of 1984, or “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from the movie The Breakfast Club, released in early 1985, the music of 1984-1985 has the ability to evoke that final, transitional year out of childhood for me in a powerful way. But so does the music of 1791 – Mozart’s Requiem, so memorably dramatized in the movie Amadeus, also released that year. Based on a play by Peter Sheaffer and directed by Milós Forman, the movie famously went on to win a boatload of Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was catnip for a classical music fan like me, and even though I knew enough of Mozart’s biography to know it was not accurate, it’s still difficult for me to not picture Tom Hulce in a pink wig when I picture the composer. And the scenes around the composition of the Requiem are seared in my memory.
Let me set the scene, as portrayed in the movie: the composer Antonio Salieri recognizes Mozart’s genius and his own mediocrity, and, angry at God for granting such a profane young man such talent, resolves to sabotage his career. Seeing Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni as representing the relationship between Mozart and his recently-decesased father (represented in the figure of the Commendatore), and also aware (though a spy in Mozart’s household) that the composer is broke, Salieri wears a mask that Mozart would associate with his father to visit him and commission a Requiem Mass, which Salieri plans to claim as his own at Mozart’s funeral. His finances in disarray and his health starting to decline, Mozart accepts, but he also works feverishly on the opera The Magic Flute, to the detriment of work on the Requiem. He collapses from exhaustion while leading a performance of the opera, and Salieri takes him home. Through the night, Salieri ‘helps’ the now-dying Mozart to work on the Requiem. The climactic scene occurs as Mozart, burning up now from fever, dictates the Confutatis to Salieri, begins to dictate the Lacrymosa, and then expires. To the strains of the Lachrymosa, we see Mozart buried in an unmarked grave, the unfinished Requiem mass locked away by Mozart’s wife, Constanze.
There are some nuggets of truth in this depiction. A ‘mysterious, grey-clad stranger’ really did commission the Requiem from Mozart–most likely at the behest of a certain Count von Walsegg, who wanted to claim it as his own work in memory of his wife; von Walsegg had apparently pulled this stunt with a number of composers. The movie is also fairly accurate in how much of the Requiem was completed by Mozart–detailed drafts existed for the sections of the Sequentia/Sequenz, through the Confutatis and then eight bars into the Lachrymosa, as well as for part of the Offertorium section–a total of about 2/3 of the work. But rather than locking it away, Mozart’s widow entrusted the Requiem to Mozart’s student Franz Süssmayr, who completed the work, which was then performed in 1792 as a benefit concert for Constanze and Mozart’s children. Constanze popularized the idea that Mozart knew he was composing the work for his own funeral.
Back to the movie, however, and the dilemma for the historian: the eternal dance between strict historical accuracy and entertainment. I think it’s a telling fact that two of my favourite historically-based movies–this one and A Lion in Winter – both started their lives as hugely successful plays. Both of them take considerable felicities with history, but through well-written dialogue, a strong plot, and memorable characters, both of them shine. It’s no coincidence that both of these movies won acting Oscars (Lion for Katherine Hepburn and Amadeus for F. Murray Abraham) with their other lead actors as nominees (Peter O’Toole for Lion and Tom Hulce for Amadeus). Both also won the Best Adapted Screenplay award. At the heart, both of these movies are about people and the relationships between them, rather than pure history.
But here’s what I didn’t know: the supposed rivalry between Mozart and Salieri was the subject of a short play by Russian author/playwright Alexander Pushkin just 39 years after Mozart’s death. That play, featuring only the two characters of Mozart and Salieri, then was taken nearly verbatim as the libretto to a one-act opera by composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897. These two works, in turn, then inspired Sheaffer’s 1979 play. So the idea that Salieri was both a rival of Mozart and possibly connected with his death had a currency almost a century and a half before the movie–which adds an interesting thread of literary tradition into the purely historical tapestry.
The other strength of the movie is that, even more than the dialogue, director Forman lets the music speak, and it cannot help but speak authentically to what made Mozart special. It helps that the soundtrack was performed by a legendary orchestra and director, Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Included are excerpts from two symphonies, two piano concertos, the Symphonie Concertante, chamber works, choral works, and four separate operas, as well as the aforementioned sections from the Requiem. This music–even more than the history–is at the centre of the film; it’s too bad that as the soundtrack was not ‘original’ it was not eligible for an Academy Award (although it did win one for Sound Editing).
It was was an appropriate segue that last night’s all-Mozart Toronto Symphony concert was introduced by bass clarinetist Miles Jacques, who stated that while he’d like to say that his introduction to Mozart was in hours spent as a child in his room listening to his music, it was actually the film Amadeus that provided that first exposure. But why, he asked the audience, had he been picked to do the introduction, given that the bass clarinet wasn’t even invented until about 100 years after Mozart’s time? As I had read on my initial research, the Requiem is scored for an unusual combination of winds, including none of the higher woodwinds (oboe, piccolo, flute, or clarinet) or horns, but adding the unconventional trombones and basset horns. Basset horns are, as Jacques mentioned, one of the ancestors of the bass clarinet. This instrumentation (which also includes the organ) gives the Requiem’s orchestra a warm, dark, deep sonority.
Jacques also mentioned that that concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Symphony #39, was a favourite of his because, apparently unlike many of Mozart’s symphonies, it includes the relatively new-fangled clarinets (at the expense of oboes, it turns out). It’s also one of my favourite of Mozart’s, rivaling that 35th for prime place in my affections. This particular symphony was one of the final three composed by Mozart in the summer of 1788. Typical of Mozart’s incredibly rapid composing speed, it was written in a single day. Interestingly enough, historians are not sure whether it was actually ever performed during the composer’s lifetime, as the first definitively recorded performance was not until 1792. It’s not as famous as its two successors, the “Great” G minor Symphony #40 and Symphony #41, the “Jupiter”, and has no catchy nickname. But all three of these symphonies are examples of the symphonic form beginning to transition from the light, simple form that dominated during the Classical period to something longer and more complex, which would be perfected by Beethoven. The 39th, for instance, has a slow introduction focused on brass that slowly leads into one of my favourite Mozart melodies, with a sparkling dotted rhythm. The TSO, under conductor laureate (and interim artistic director) Sir Andrew Davis, played the entire symphony nearly flawlessly, with great gusto and sparkle in the opening and closing movements, tenderness during the slow movement, and charm during the ländler-based third movement, with its trios showcasing the “radical” clarinet. The only issue was one that cropped up during last week’s performance of the Beethoven 7th symphony–occasionally the horns and trumpets, playing supporting material, did not blend completely with the orchestra. I had to wonder whether it had something to do with my seat, which was in the same general location as last week’s–perhaps a quirk of the hall?
And I’ve already written about some of the issues of Roy Thompson Hall. These were quite evident during the perfomance of the Requiem in the second half. The sheer size of the Toronto Mendelssohn choir in comparison to the orchestra did ensure that the choral parts received the focus they rightly should. That’s not quite the right way to phrase it–what allowed the balance to be perfect, I think, was the lack of a massive wind section and percussion section, as had been present in the Mahler Resurrection Symphony last year where the orchestra did, at times, overwhelm the choir. But the orchestra–or rather, perhaps, the hall itself–did at times overwhelm the soloists, who were all early-career (but not inexperienced) young artists selected through an audition process. They were most effective when singing together as a quartet, as they did, for instance, in the Recordare section.
Listening to the Requiem with Handel’s Messiah relatively fresh in memory, it was easy to identify Handel’s influences on Mozart, which were both somewhat unusual for their time, but yet well documented. Mozart had created a German-language, re-orchestrated version of Messiah in 1789 (which the TSO performed this year, in fact, with the same choir) and particularly in the Introitus and the Kyrie (as this article points out) there are obvious borrowings from Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs, and And With His Stripes. The orchestra and chorus then ripped into a furiously fast Dies Irae, whipping up the wrath of Judgement Day to contrast with the relatively calm and quiet of the Tuba Mirum section–not signaled by loud brass fanfares in Mozart, but much more subdued trumpets and trombones to accompany the vocal quartet. This makes what follows – text regarding Judgement Day–personal and intimate, rather than massive and overwhelming. After a brief, loud appeal to God by the chorus (Rex tremendae majestatis), again, the contrast with the quiet quartet. As I mentioned earlier, this was the soloists’ most effective section.
And thus we came to the Confutatis. This is, I believe, the high point of the entire piece, and the orchestra and chorus responded, the strings and the male voices stirring up the flames of Hell and the women’s voices responding as the blessed, like a an angelic choir, otherworldly and shimmering. And then, the Lacrymosa, closing out the Sequenz section with its swaying rhythms, halting at first (as if through sobs), and then flowing along in treble time, as if the soul is rocking while consumed by tears, before culminating in the final, conclusive Amen.
The Requiem was not over at this point, but it did come back to earth. Part of it is due to the text, which has moved beyond the evocation of Judgement Day to praying for the souls of the departed, but part of it is because, increasingly, we have moved beyond what Mozart actually wrote, and it is obvious. It’s still lovely music, performed beautifully by the TSO, the choir, and the soloists, and clearly heavily influenced by Mozart, but to my ears the debt owed to Handel was more and more obvious. The sections written by Mozart look forward, even as they are heavily influenced by similar works of the past; those written by Süssmayer are much more conventional, though certainly ‘Mozartean’ in feel.
I found this entire performance wholly more satisfying than the all-Mozart concert I saw the TSO perform exactly a year to the day, which included two of the violin concertos and the 35th symphony, and I believe I know why. Mozart’s instrumental writing is fabulous–whether sparkling with brio and charm or quiet and contemplative–but for drama and passion, you cannot beat his choral works (and by that, I also include his operas). He becomes that much better at a full range of emotions when he is able to to work with text in his compositions. I suspect this is why, despite the fact that opera is not something I normally go out of my way to see, Mozart’s operas – particularly Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute — are both on my list to hear performed live at some point.
And perhaps, at some point, Tafelmusik might take on the Requiem again (as they did in 2013). When they do, I’ll be there.