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Requiem: A Work for the Ages

Posted on March 14, 2017 at 1:30 PM

By Marion Carter

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps the most remarkable and prolific musical genius in history, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, the youngest of the only two children of Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart to survive infancy.  A musician specializing in the violin, Leopold soon recognized Wolfgang's musical gifts and came to the conclusion that he had fathered a genius.  At age three, the boy began to pick out chords on the clavier, and by the next year was able to compose brief musical pieces which his father wrote down.  Mozart's biographer, the eminent historian Paul Johnson, describes Mozart's grasp of music thusly:  "at an early age, music entered so completely into his physical and intellectual system that it became his nature:  he played and composed as he breathed, and the fluidity and speed--and accuracy--with which he wrote music and orchestrated it became a phenomenon..."  This early facility set the tone for the rest of Mozart's musical career.  Because he began composing at such a young age and worked so relentlessly, even to the point of continuing to compose on his deathbed, his lifetime output was enormous.  There was scarcely a month, often even a week, when he did not produce a substantial score.  Franz Liszt once remarked that Mozart actually composed more bars than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime.  Despite the vast number of his compositions and the rapidity at which he produced them, Mozart seldom made a mistake.  A large number of his scores survive in his careful and exceptionally accurate handwriting, showing no errors or corrections of any kind.  Although he died at the tragically early age of thirty-five, the world is fortunate that his too-brief musical career was brimming with creation.


It seems fitting that the work Mozart was composing on his deathbed was the profoundly moving Requiem, the traditional Mass for the Faithful Departed.  The monumental work is unique in his repertoire for its unusual orchestration.  Using a creative blend of instruments, including basset horns, bassoons, trombones, a continuo section of organ, and strings in lower registers, Mozart achieved a musical portrait of grief, pain, and lament that is unexcelled in its raw intensity and emotional power.  The first movement opens with the comforting words, "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine" (Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord) followed by the ancient plea for mercy, "Kyrie eleison."  In the second movement, the mood quickly becomes dark and somber, even wrenching.  The dramatic choruses "Dies irae" and "Confutatis" and the quartet "Tuba mirum" vividly depict the torments of the unredeemed in the dreadful wrath of Judgment Day.  In stark contrast, coming between the majestic "Rex tremendae" and the apocalyptic fury of "Confutatis," the quartet "Recordare" is devasting in its tender beauty.  The second movement ends with the heartbreakingly lovely "Lacrimosa," perhaps the best known of all the choruses.  Many scholars believe the first eight bars of "Lacrimosa" to be the last music Mozart ever composed.  Beginning the third movement, the gorgeous choruses "Domine Jesu," "Hostias," and "Sanctus" offer prayers for deliverance and praise to a merciful God.  The glorious quartet "Benedictus" and the final choruses, "Angus Dei" and Lux aeterna," plead for a forgiving God's blessing and eternal rest for the  faithful departed, completing Mozart's masterpiece as it began.


For all its solemnity, throughout Requiem there is an underlying current of hope, peace, and redemption.  Paul Johnson postulates that despite the somber subject, even when dealing with the music of death, indeed with death itself, Mozart's faith in God along with his naturally optimistic disposition would not permit him to write music that was wholly sorrowful.  Mozart's own words seem to bear this out "...death's image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling and I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity...of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that--young as I am--I may not live to see another day.  Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled/"  In Requiem, perhaps it was Mozart's ability to counter the anguish and terror of death with transcendent faith that has captured the human imagination and made his last composition a work for the ages.  The Commonwealth Chorale is proud to bring this sublime masterwork to the communities of Southside Virginia.

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