Friday, June 12, 2009

Truth is stranger than fiction - Mozart's Requiem

By the time you read this, I anticipate that I will be at a graveside service for Travis Clark. For this reason, Mozart's Requiem is on my mind. I knew little about it other than the myth:

A strange messenger requested a Requiem that appears to be for Mozart's own funeral.

After some snooping, I found the true story:

On 14 February 1791, Anna née Flammberg, the young wife of Graf Franz von Walsegg, died. Walsegg was an eccentric nobleman living at Stuppach near Vienna, and as a dual memorial to his late wife he planned for a statue to be sculpted, and for a composer to write a Requiem mass which would be performed annually on the anniversary of her death.

Nothing unusual here - noblemen commissioned works all the time. But here's where the story takes a turn:

Walsegg was also an amateur musician and dilettante who often affected the guise of a composer (a “notorious raven who dressed himself in peacock’s feathers”) by pretending to be the author of quartets or other compositions which he had in fact had written for him. From one particular document we know enough of Walsegg’s eccentricities to be fairly certain he arranged for the mass to be commissioned in a particularly secretive way, which would allow him to pass the music off as his own.

Walsegg then employed Dr. Johann Sortschan for a very special task.

Sortschan sent a messenger to Mozart to enquire how soon he could write a Requiem, and negotiate a fee. Part of these instructions must have been to preserve Walsegg’s anonymity (by invoking Mozart not to attempt to find out who wanted the work done)....

But it isn't like Mozart dropped everything to work on the Requiem.

Mozart would also have told the messenger that the composition would have to wait until he had finished various other commitments; just the small matter of two operas, a concerto, a cantata, conducting engagements in Prague... The composition of La clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, the clarinet concerto, and the Masonic cantata occupied Mozart for much of the second half of 1791....

But it appears that Mozart began to work on the Requiem in late October 1791. By November, he was stricken with a fever. He apparently had no premonition of death:

Allegedly Mozart took to his bed and put aside work on the Requiem in order to recuperate; had Mozart expected to live only another fortnight, it is easy to imagine him taking to his bed, but to stop composing on the other hand?

By December 5, Mozart was dead. It is speculated that he worked on the Requiem a little bit in the days before his death, but the piece was certainly incomplete by that point. Regardless, it appears that portions of the piece were performed five days later:

[I]n the early 1990s several reports were uncovered which confirm that a requiem mass was sung at the church of St Michael on 10 December 1791 (not quite the octave of Mozart’s death, when such memorials are traditionally appropriate) at the instigation the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. One of these reports indicates that some portions of the Requiem were indeed sung, as the dying composer had anticipated, though it is impossible to establish exactly which parts of the fragment were performed, and with what forces [8].

We may guess that this initial performance organised by Schikaneder might have had orchestral accompaniment for the Introït, but it is also possible that much of the remaining music could have been performed by soloists or chorus, simply accompanied by organ, as numerous musicians would have been able to improvise the accompaniment from Mozart’s figured bass part and the indications of the orchestral motifs given here and there in the manuscript.

Read the rest of Philip Legge's history of the Mozart Requiem for an account of what happened next, and all of the different people who may have helped to complete Mozart's work, in an attempt to secure the remainder of the fee promised by Walsegg. I dont' know if Mozart's wife was successful in obtaining payment, but presumably Walsegg never commissioned another requiem; after the death of his wife, Wikipedia states that he never remarried.

But what of Anna née Flammberg? An account of the Schloss Prenner von Flammberg (with a picture) provides additional detail:

The lady for whom the Mozart Requiem was commissioned, has for long simply been refered to as Anna nee von Flammberg. Her proper family name was in fact Prenner (Flammberg was a title), her full name being Maria Anna Theresa Prenner von Flammberg. She was the daughter of the wealthy Wilhelm and Magdalena and was born on 15 November 1770 at this castle in Niederhollabrunn which was unknown to Mozart historians for almost two centuries. The family was musical and her father was benefactor of the church in nearby Niederfellabrunn. The castle has been turned into a cultural venue....
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