Who remembers the 1984 film Amadeus? Told from the perspective of composer Antonio Salieri, this delightful biopic highlights the genius, vulgarity, and dramatics of the great Mozart. At its core, the movie makes Salieri culpable for Mozart’s death, the cause of which to this day remains unconfirmed. According to the film, Salieri appeared on Mozart’s doorstep in “the guise of a frightening emissary from beyond” to commission a requiem, which eventually drove Mozart to his grave. During the final days of Mozart’s life, Salieri visited the great composer’s bedside and wrote down Mozart’s plan for the rest of the requiem. He later finished the work and attempted to claim it as his own.
Although the idea that Salieri killed Mozart is complete fiction, Amadeus didn’t stray far from the truth in its depiction of Wolfgang’s final composition. In July of 1791, Mozart was visited by what he describes as a “gray messenger.” This mysterious visitor brought a commission for a requiem from an unknown individual, who later turned out to be Count Walsegg. Walsegg was an amateur musician who notoriously hired ghost writers for compositions he would later claim as his own. In this instance, he wanted a mass to perform each year on the anniversary of his young wife’s death. Mozart, then in a fair amount of debt, quickly accepted the proposition.
After finishing up several compositions, including The Magic Flute, Mozart finally began work on the requiem in October. As he fell ill with what would be a terminal sickness, he became obsessed with the piece. He slaved over the requiem day and night. In the delirium of his illness, the “gray messenger” morphed into a herald from beyond. The composer even said to his wife, “I fear I am writing a requiem for myself.”
Mozart’s death left his wife to deal with the family’s copious amount of debt on her own. Fairly business savvy, Constanze knew she needed the money from the unfinished requiem’s commission. Luckily, Mozart left behind the full vocal parts and baseline, plus an outline of the instrumentation for the sections he had completed. No sketches or guidelines have been found for the last three movements.
Constanze enlisted the help of Joseph Eybler, good friend and colleague of her husband. Eybler finished orchestrating portions of the requiem. However, he soon returned the work to Constanze out of respect for his dear friend. He feared he could not do Mozart’s creation justice.
The requiem next landed in the hands of fellow composer Franz Xaver Sussmayr. He is the one credited today for completing Mozart’s Requiem. The amount of influence he had on the work remains a highly debated topic. Given that Sussmayr had no guidance for the three unwritten movements, there is no way to tell whether he followed the great composer’s wishes. However, the quality of the composition and the continuation of the common themes indicate strong influence from Mozart. As one critic put it, “how [else] could music of such grandeur and sublimity possibly [have] come from one who produced nothing else in his life of lasting value.”
Sussmayer rewrote the entire Requiem, with his additions included, in his own hand and forged Mozart’s signature. Constanze presented the completed work to Count Walsegg, secretly keeping a copy for herself. Although the Count expected to premiere the work himself in late 1793, Constanze presented Mozart’s Requiem eleven months earlier at a benefit concert in honor of her husband.