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Mozart’s Final Bow

Mozart conducting the Requiem on his deathbed

“As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence. I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying for me but is indeed very soothing and consoling.”

These words, uttered by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before his death, 228 years ago today on December 5, 1791, could also be said about his Requiem, a sacred composition offering prayers for the souls of the deceased.

When I was 15 years old, I performed the Requiem for the first time with the Bard College Community Choir, an experience that made a lasting impression. My beloved paternal grandmother had recently died and I was quite distressed, as my tender heart had not yet suffered the loss of a close family member. While the woodwinds played the dirge-like opening bars of the piece, and the Latin words “Et lux perpetua luceat eis” resounded throughout the college chapel, I was comforted by the thought of “perpetual light” shining upon my grandmother.

At that time, I was unaware of the shroud of mystery hovering over Mozart’s final opus, as well as the conspiracy theories surrounding his tragic death at age 35. It wasn’t until I watched the film Amadeus by Milos Forman that I first heard of Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s musical rival-contemporary and suspected poisoner. Was he the masked “grey messenger” who had brought an offer of a commission from an anonymous donor to Mozart’s doorstep? Was there any credence to Mozart’s dying claims that he had been poisoned? I left the movie theater with a haunting, unsettled feeling: the composer with the divine touch had met a gruesome ending and had not even been spared the indignity of a pauper’s burial.

I didn’t sing the Requiem again until 2002, at the Vigado in Budapest, where I was living and had joined the alto section of the Academic Choral Society. This time, the date of the concert coincided with the seven-year anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s death. Like Mozart, Johann Kobets had been Austrian and spent part of his youth in Vienna. I was sure that as a devout Catholic he had heard the Requiem performed at Stephansdom, where he most likely would have attended Sunday Mass.

Singing at Mattias Church, Budapest (photo by György Virag)

After a Requiem “break” of 17 years, I traveled back to Budapest last month with members of my choir in Helsinki, Viva Vox, for a performance of the work at Matthias Church. We had been invited to join musical forces with Swedish and Hungarian singers, and I jumped at the opportunity to sing at such a glorious venue. While rehearsing the piece beforehand, I read about its enigmatic history, as well as Mozart’s deteriorating health in his final days, and decided that after the concert, I’d go to Vienna, where he had spent the last ten years of his life. Perhaps a visit to MozartHaus there would shed some light on the mystery.

After a two-and-a-half-hour train ride, I entered Domgasse 5 in the center of Vienna, where Mozart had moved with his wife Constanze, their infant son Karl Thomas, and three servants in 1784. Of the dozen or so apartments he had rented in the city, this address is considered the most upscale and fashionable, which may be why he lived there the longest (until 1787). Because this is the only Viennese abode of Mozart’s to have survived intact, it is the main attraction of MozartHaus, a museum housed on three levels.

Domgasse, with Mozarthaus on the distant right

The top two floors of the building are dedicated to giving the viewer a better understanding of Viennese life in the latter 18th century. You can also find a multimedia presentation of The Magic Flute, original music scores, Mozart’s death mask, and a treasure trove of information about the various places where he’d lived and performed in the city. I was surprised to learn of his deep connections to the Freemasons and that he’d composed many pieces for their meetings.

The heart of MozartHaus is the four-room (plus kitchen) apartment on the first floor, where the young family had lived. None of their original furnishings have survived, so the rooms are sparsely decorated, giving the former home a spacious feeling conducive to reflection. As I walked in Mozart’s footsteps over the wooden floors (pinch me!), I imagined him composing The Marriage of Figaro in the ornate narrow room with the Rococo ceiling. Afterward, he would have moved to the largest room to play billiards (he was an avid fan of the sport) and receive guests, such as Franz Joseph Haydn, to whom he dedicated several of his string quartets.

Although the museum claimed that Mozart’s happiest days had been spent on Domgasse 5, tragedy struck in 1786, when the couple’s second son, Johann, died one month after birth. Surely, strains of the future Requiem were cultivated as the grieving father struggled with his huge loss.

The emotional punch of the tour came at the end, when listening to the retelling of eyewitness accounts of Mozart’s last hours. His friends and family members reported that he had worked on the Requiem score in bed the night before he died, even summoning three singers to accompany him as he sang the alto part from “Lacrimosa.” They didn’t get past the first few measures because the composer apparently broke down and sobbed, sensing that the piece he’d written for the anonymous donor was really for him. Mozart’s foreboding of his imminent death is evident in the “Confutatis” section: “I kneel with a submissive heart, my contrition is like ashes, help me in my final condition.” I would like to think that when the end came, Mozart’s crowning achievement floated up to the heavens with him.

Original “Dies Irae” score

I further learned that the mysterious donor who commissioned the Requiem was Count Franz von Walsegg, a wealthy music lover whose young bride had recently died and who wanted a requiem mass written in her memory. It’s also likely that he had an ulterior motive: to pass off the music as his own, as he was known to do, hence the need for anonymity.

Although unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death, parts of the Requiem were performed a few days later at his memorial service at St. Michael’s Church in Vienna. His former pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the commission and delivered it to Count von Walsegg within a year. As rumors circulated about the composition (many started by Constanze, who wanted the public to believe that her husband had completed it in full), it was not possible for the Count to claim the Requiem as his own creation.

As for the conspiracy theories surrounding Mozart’s death, I doubt that Constanze would have allowed her son Franz Waver to study music with Antonio Salieri if she suspected he had poisoned her husband. While no autopsy was performed, Mozart’s doctor claimed that his patient’s body had not shown any traces of arsenic or mercury poisoning. The official cause of death was listed as “military inflammation,” and various experts have since weighed in, citing strep infection, rheumatic and inflammatory fever, the plague, and even trichinosis from uncooked pork chops as alternative reasons.

I left Vienna not much closer to confirmation of Mozart’s fatal illness, but with much admiration for his genius and what he had accomplished in his short life. At Stephansdom (photo below), where he and Constanze had wed and their sons were baptized, I lit a candle of appreciation in his memory. The next time I sing the Requiem, it will hold an even special meaning for me because of the brief moments I reveled in Herr Mozart’s artistic glow, which shines forever in his former home.

Memorial candles ablaze at Stephansdom, Vienna

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