Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most prominent and prolific composers of the Classical period. The Requiem in D minor, K 626, is his last work and, although unfinished, is a pinnacle of the sacred music that transcends the Classical period. The uncertainty that wraps its completion circumstances adds an aura of mystery to the Requiem, making it even more fascinating. This paper offers an overview of the Requiem in D minor, analyzing the musical composition, examining the orchestration’s expressive devices, and providing a historical frame. The essay also suggests that the chromaticity and the dramatic tensions of Mozart’s Requiem paved the way for Romanticism.
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Mozart started to work on the Requiem in D minor in 1791 while writing two operas, La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute. The Requiem was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach to commemorate the wife, who had departed earlier that year. When, on December 5, 1791, Mozart died, the Requiem was incomplete. The story of its completion gave birth to a plethora of puzzling and almost fictional stories; however, evidence shows that two composers, Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayr, were involved in the final drafting of the work beyond any doubts (Taylor, 2019). While such details have relevance from a historical perspective, the Requiem in D minor remains an undoubted masterwork and a shining example of sacred music.
Mozart is universally regarded as a giant in music’s history and, indeed, his operas and piano concertos represent his most admired works. However, Mozart’s excursions into sacred music should not be underestimated as his compositions are solemn, mighty, and outstanding. They reach unclimbed peaks with the impressive C minor Mass, K. 427 and the Requiem Mass in D minor, K. 626 (Smith, 2019). The requiem, or mass for the dead, is part of the Catholic liturgical corpus and is an intercessory prayer on behalf of the dead. For centuries, the requiems were written for unaccompanied male voices in a monophonic style following Gregorian melodies. The current requiem’s structure was shaped during the fourteenth century, while the first polyphonic settings date back to the fifteenth century (Chase, 2003). However, the sequence hymns, Dies Irae, were included in the Council of Trent (1543-63). The requiem’s skeleton follows the Ordinary mass structure, but two of the prayers, Gloria and Creed, are omitted.
By the time of his death, Mozart had written the Introit and sketched the Kyrie, Sequence Hymn, and Offertorium. The Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communion, unwritten, were completed by Eybler and Süssmayr over the following year. The Requiem in D minor is a polyphonic composition for orchestra, choir, and four soloists, soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass. Both the orchestration and the compositions reflect the evolution of thinking and religious devotion in the eighteenth century: the Enlightenment led to a desire for simpler ceremonies while the aesthetics witnessed the rise of vocal ensembles (Smith, 2019). Generally, the Baroque counterpoint was abandoned in favor of the Galant style that privileged melody and accompaniment patterns. However, Mozart mastered the vocal counterpoint learned through the accurate study of both Haendel and Bach polyphonic works (Hudea, 2018). The orchestration of the Requiem is both solemn and melodramatic: a unique theatrical sense counterweights the sacred composition’s classic rigor.
Besides being a universal masterpiece, the Requiem in D minor holds a prominent position in music history. On the one hand, it directly influenced the development of the Viennese requiem, an autonomous genre with traits peculiar to the Austrian capital (Taylor, 2019). On the other hand, the dramatic tensions interfering with the vocal-polyphonic represents a groundbreaking approach to different musical genres. The rich chromaticity and dynamics contrasting with the solemnity of the central theme of the Requiem suggest new perspectives that paved the road for Romanticism (Hudea, 2018). The Tuba Mirum and Lacrymosa sections are eloquent examples of dramatic, inspirational moments. Here, the theatrical aspects are merged with the sacrality of death (France Musique). The orchestration, the soloist voices, and the mighty choir partiture contribute to making the Requiem a poignant and profound musical masterpiece.
Written at the end of the eighteenth century and during the last months of Mozart’s life, the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, mirrors both the evolution of music’s role in the coeval society and the mature genius of the composer. The Requiem follows the architecture of the traditional mass for the dead as set by the Roman Catholic tradition. However, the extensive use of vocal parts, both solo and choral, is in line with the evolution of musical taste, while the orchestration reflects the aim for a less solemn approach to religious ceremonies. Mozart’s work represents a pinnacle in the transition from a counterpoint to melody-accompaniment compositions. The masterwork had a straight influence on many contemporary requiems in the Viennese music setting, but its importance goes beyond any geographical boundary. The Requiem‘s intense theatrical attitude and its contrast with the theme’s solemnity, the celebration of the dead, create a dramatic tension that anticipates Romanticism.
Chase, R. (2003). Dies irae: A guide to requiem music. Scarecrow Press.
France Musique. (2018). Mozart : Requiem in D K. 626 (Orchestre national de France/James Gaffigan) [Video]. YouTube.
Hudea, I. (2018). The sacred theatrical attitude of Mozart’s Requiem. Altarul Reîntregirii, 23, 107-124. Web.
Smith, E. H. (2019). Mozart’s “great” mass: Sources, history, and performance practice. [Doctoral dissertation Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame, Indiana]. ProQuest. Web.
Taylor, M. C. (2019). The Viennese requiem 1742-1821: Context, structure and style. [Doctoral dissertation Philosophy in Music, The University of Auckland, New Zealand]. University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services. Web.