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A Latin mass for the dead

It was a dark and stormy night when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died, wrote Joseph Deiner on January 1856. Apparently it was dark and stormy at the funeral, too.

“Rain and snow fell at the same time, as if Nature wanted to shew her anger with the great composer's contemporaries, who had turned out extremely sparsely for his burial.”

While Deiner's weather report conflicts with the “mild weather and mist” that prevailed that day, equally romanticised stories around the composer's demise have him writing the Requiem for himself.

Stories around Mozart's death are the stuff movies are made of. He feared he had been poisoned, he spoke of “very strange thoughts” regarding the unpredicted appearance of an unknown man, and that he died one dark and stormy night, feature among the conflicting accounts.

The Austrian composer's requiem mass was unfinished by the time he died in 1791. He is said to have written the instrumental opening, the Kyrie and much of the rest but his composition pupil, Franz Xaver Sussmayr wrote the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio.

Combined forces

In May, the Gisborne Choral Society (GCS) will perform Mozart's masterpiece of choral music in combination with the Hastings Choral Society.

“The Requiem is unusually passionate and powerful for a product of the classical era” says GCS musical director Gavin Maclean.

“It was used to great effect in the play and movie Amadeus, about the ominous approach of the composer's premature death.

“Death was indeed approaching as Mozart penned the music. He did not finish it, but one of his pupils provided the finished version most often sung today, filling in orchestrations, rounding off some movements, and executing the master's wish of repeating the opening fugue at the end.”

Describing the Requiem as “a historical palimpsest”, The Guardian's classical music writer Tom Service points to an apparent stylistic fusion of influences in Mozart's work. Outright pilfery appears in the Requiem, says Service. Mozart knew Handel's Messiah inside out, essentially pinched bits from movements in the work but made it his own.

Reflection and intensification

“In the Requiem's use of arcane counterpoint, and its evocation of a strange liturgical archaism, right from the very first bar (something Mozart achieves through a paradoxically new-fangled combination of orchestral colours — trombones, basset horns, a continuo section of organ and low strings as well as a more conventional 18th century orchestral line-up), Mozart turns his Requiem into a reflection and intensification of earlier models of musical grief.”

The traditional movements of the Latin mass for the dead have attracted hundreds of composers over the ages, says Maclean.

“There are entrancing melodies, brilliant harmonic sequences, and exquisite quartets for solo singers in Mozart's rendition.

“It clearly influenced Verdi, when 80 years later he composed his famously bombastic Requiem, in which some of Mozart's phrases clearly resonate.”

Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K. 626 kicks off the GCS's 2020 programme. Rehearsals are on Tuesday evenings in St Andrew's Community Centre, and new singers are welcome. For more information, call Gisborne Choral Society president Mary-Jane Richmond on 021 022 08249.

ONE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT: Joseph Heicke's 1860 engraving depicts the journey of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's coffin through a storm to the cemetery. The portrayal is one of several fictions around the Austrian composer's death — and his motivation to write Requiem, the masterpiece that will kick off the Gisborne Choral Society's 2020 programme.