WDAV Blog

The myth of the pauper’s grave

By Lawrence Toppman

You’ll occasionally hear that Mozart was ignored at the end of his life, dumped into a mass grave without a headstone because Viennese society had already begun to forget him. He died 228 years ago today (December 5), so this may be a good week to debunk hoary legends about his passing and funeral.

Accounts about the nature of his fatal illness don’t agree. Most sources point to rheumatic fever; he’d had bouts of it as a boy, and it probably came back in adulthood. His late-life symptoms of swelling and joint pain suggest a recurrence, and rheumatic fever often leads to heart disease.

He spoke at least twice of the belief that he’d been poisoned by an unidentified enemy but also repudiated that idea, as scholars do today. Theorists have suggested he had a severe deficiency of vitamin D, succumbed to a subdural hematoma or trichinosis, or filled his body with patent medicines that contained antimony.

Reports in the 19th century claimed nobody accompanied the body to the interment, partly because of terrible rain and snow. But weather journals for 1791, found long after the “dark and stormy night” narrative circulated, say the weather was calm. And it was less customary anyway for mourners at the funeral to ride out to the gravesite in the 18th century.

Emperor Joseph II had forbidden the use of headstones and encouraged burials that were simple, hygienic and inexpensive: Bodies were supposed to decay quickly, and the city of Vienna sometimes opened communal graves to replace occupants with fresh corpses. Leopold II ruled during the last years of Mozart’s life but had not changed those practices much.

Biographers also dispute whether Mozart lay in a “common” grave or a “communal” one. The former adjective simply means humble or non-aristocratic. The latter means he shared space with other bodies, at least until they were removed. He definitely landed in St. Marx Cemetery, where a statue of a weeping angel now sits at the spot thought likeliest to be his resting place. Except, perhaps, for his skull (minus the lower jaw). That, according to the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in his birth city, may be in their hands, though DNA testing has been inconclusive. Of course, what really matters is not the skull itself but the amazing music that came out of it.

Celebrate World Choral Day

By Olivia TenHuisen

In 1990, Helsinki became an epicenter for choral music when the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) approved an initiative put forth to set aside the second Sunday in December to celebrate choral music each year. Alberto Grau from the Latin American Vice-Presidency of the IFCM, proposed World Choral Day because of the strength and connection choral music can bring to a divided global community.

“It is time to show, with more power and strength, that our choral family contributes, through music to break down the artificial barriers product of politics, different ideologies, religious differences, and racial hatred that separate human beings. We must be able to show that music, the divine art, is more than the mere search of formal perfection and interpretative beauty, music should serve to extol the values of solidarity, peace, and understanding.”

Alberto Grau

Since its approval, millions of singers around the globe have been involved in World Choral Day concerts, festivals, or other events. In 2018, World Choral Day events were held in 69 different countries. Of these, 15 countries had never previously held any events to honor the holiday.

This year, World Choral Day falls on the 8th of December and to help you celebrate the choral arts, we’ve gathered a short list of favorite choral pieces from the WDAV staff! Links to these selections on ArkivMusic are also provided should you want to purchase the music for yourself.


Rachel Stewart

Gregorio AllegriMiserere
“This piece blew my hair back the first time I heard it; it’s so beautiful.”

Rachel Stewart, Associate Content Director & Host of Biscuits and Bach


Frank Dominguez

Ralph Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony
Using text from Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, this symphony is about 70 minutes in total and is comprised of four unique movements.

Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria RV 589

Frank Dominguez, General Manager & Content Director


Ted Weiner

Handel, “Let none despair. Relief may come though late” from the opera Hercules from 1744.

Claudio Monteverdi, “Beatus vir” (Blessed is the man)

Ted Weiner, Music Director & Host of the Early Shift


Rodger Clark

Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture, Op. 49
While not all versions include the choral part, Rodger notes that it makes for a wonderful addition to the piece.

Eric Whitacre, Water Night
Whitacre’s Virtual Choir project began in 2009 and involves singers from around the world uploading recorded videos of their singing. These videos are then “Synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” More information on the Virtual Choir project can be found here.

Rodger Clark, Director of Philanthropy & Special Projects


Olivia TenHuisen is a student assistant at WDAV and majoring in psychology at Davidson. Olivia sang as an alto in the Davidson College Chorale and leads a worship team for an on-campus organization. Music has been important to Olivia throughout her life and she continues to find ways to incorporate it. 

Stepping into dead men’s shoes

By Lawrence Toppman

I once told a college music professor my favorite requiem was K. 626. “You mean your favorite half-requiem,” he replied. “Nobody who worked on it afterward got close to Mozart.”

WAM left a fully orchestrated first movement, all the vocal parts, figured bass for everything but the Lacrimosa and suggestions for orchestration elsewhere. No church would want half a requiem for liturgical and aesthetic reasons. So Franz Süssmayr, a friend of Mozart’s who knew his widow needed money, finished the commission.

Other composers probably inserted passages, but he completed the Lacrimosa and said he wrote the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Over the years, others took cracks at it, the way orchestrators keep redoing Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” despite Ravel’s mastery. Yet Süssmayr’s remains the one we hear in concerts and recordings.

Dedicated, obscure composers often reconstruct works that would otherwise disappear. The most famous, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (usually heard in Deryck Cooke’s version), uses Mahler’s sketches to add 40 minutes of music to the one movement he finished. Brian Newbould has “conjecturally completed” (I love that phrase) multiple Schubert symphonies, including the “Unfinished” – an idea counter to the wishes of the composer, who could’ve done that if he’d wanted to. Unlike Mahler and Mozart, Schubert didn’t die while writing it.

Tibor Serly needed two years to rebuild the viola concerto by friend and fellow Hungarian Bela Bartok. Anthony Payne took even longer to chew over 130 pages of manuscript for a piece published as “Edward Elgar: the sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne.”

This procedure works better when someone builds a work from scraps than when he rounds off a masterpiece. Friedrich Cerha’s third act for Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” provides closure but doesn’t have quite the emotional punch of the first two. Franco Alfano’s finale for “Turandot” wisely reprises themes from the rest of Puccini’s opera but doesn’t convince us it’s what the composer intended. Some works never catch on. The opening movements of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and Sixth Piano Concerto haven’t attracted interest, perhaps because they follow his greatest achievements in each genre. Soviet composer Semyon Bogatyrev built Tchaikovsky’s fragments for a Seventh Symphony into a full-length piece, which had a vogue 60 years ago and vanished. If you’re not a genius yourself, picking up the pen of one usually doesn’t pay off.

Sir Stephen Cleobury, Former Music Director of King’s College, Cambridge, has Died

King’s College, Cambridge, announced that they learned Sir Stephen Cleobury died on Friday, November 22, 2019, following a long illness. Cleobury was well known for being the music director for the famed King’s College, Cambridge, choir for 37 years.

Read more about Cleobury’s life from King’s College and see an online book of condolences.

Pictured: Combination works of Stephen Cleobury By VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, CC BY-SA 2.0; and Choir stalls and Great Organ, viewed from the east end, at King’s College Chapel By Jean-Christophe BENOIST – Own work, CC BY 3.0.

Music: HIP or Un-HIP?

By Lawrence Toppman

The historically informed performance movement started to gain momentum about 45 years ago, as I fell in love with classical music. It began with medieval and Renaissance music, went on to the Baroque and finally encompassed the Classical and Romantic eras. At last we’d hear what composers heard, or what research tells us they heard, rather than huge orchestras or modern instruments they never knew.

But is that a good thing?

In the case of “Messiah,” absolutely. Leaner textures, smaller ensembles and countertenors in place of altos seem apt to me, an improvement over ponderous tempos and massive ensembles of yore. In the case of Schumann’s symphonies, perhaps. I own beloved recordings by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and scaled-down versions by Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band, and both have their points: Sometimes lightness and speed serve that music better, sometimes might and majesty do.

But I can’t accept the idea that we must listen to Mozart on a fortepiano. On the positive side, we’re presumably hearing with Mozart’s ears, and earlier concertos acquire special spring and vivacity that way. Yet the more powerful and emotional ones – especially the D Minor and C Minor, numbers 20 and 24 – sound undernourished. When a pianist attacks them on a fortepiano, I think of a middleweight boxer trying to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight.

The symphonies work in both iterations, on original instruments or modern ones. So do the string and woodwind concertos; the sound of a valveless horn gives extra raw excitement to the four concertos WAM finished for that instrument. But I don’t need to hear opera singers use 18th-century vocal techniques, which – among other things – would require tenors to sing their highest notes in head voice, aka falsetto. (They did that until Rossini premiered “William Tell.”)

I think the real question is what composers wanted to hear, not what they did hear. Bach may have written cantatas for small groups because those were the forces available, not because that was his choice. Mozart might have imagined a richer, darker sound than any piano or other instrument of his time could give him. We don’t know, as he left no documents complaining about such limitations. Historically informed performance seems like a good idea to me. But historically rigid performance is a jail sentence no composer should have to serve.

Daddy Dearest – or was he?

By Lawrence Toppman

Among musical anniversaries not celebrated in 2019, one stands out: Leopold Mozart was born 300 years ago on November 14. Of all the fathers in the history of classical music, he did the most to help and hinder a genius.

Peter Hall’s “Amadeus” (which debuted 40 years ago last week at London’s Royal National Theatre) found an antihero in Antonio Salieri: A composer of limited gifts who delights in Mozart’s music while jealously obsessing over him. That description might also be applied to Leopold.

On the plus side, he introduced the boy and his sister to European royalty on concert tours when they were keyboard prodigies; he continued to usher teenaged Wolfgang around after Nannerl dropped out. He became the first teacher for both while serving as deputy kapellmeister to the court at Salzburg, though he never achieved the position of kapellmeister (master of music).

He worked hard to find his son a permanent position in Salzburg, though without success and eventually against WAM’s wishes. The old man even took over the raising of little Leopold, his grandson, possibly to relieve the stress in Nannerl’s dysfunctional household and possibly in hopes of finding another wunderkind.

But on the other side…. He never granted Mozart the independence a young person needs to mature, bullying him in letters for as long as they corresponded. (Leopold died four years before his son, who was so estranged he didn’t know his father’s condition.) He warned Wolfgang against anything that would take him out of dad’s orbit and control, especially potential romantic entanglements and time spent in foreign cities.

At the same time, he complained about his own poverty – evidence about Leopold’s finances varies – to get Wolfgang to support him, and he seldom seems to have expressed interest in his son’s masterpieces after Wolfgang left home permanently in 1781. He even blamed the 22-year-old composer for neglect that led to his mother’s death, when she succumbed to an undiagnosed illness on a tour to Paris.

Leopold could write entertaining music. I like his Toy Symphony and especially his Peasant Wedding, which includes bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy and requires orchestra members to whoop and whistle. But his symphonies, concertos and serenades – all genres in which his son excelled – have been forgotten. Perhaps he anticipated that, and foreknowledge led to a toxic cocktail of love, envy and self-pity.

Pictured: By Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (*1721, †1782) – online source; Held by the Mozart museum at Mozart’s birthplace, Public Domain.

Review: ‘Pipe Dreams’ Strikes A Competitive Chord

By Lawrence Toppman

If you’re an organ fan, you’ll swoon when the five competitors in “Pipe Dreams” attack the keyboards at an international competition in Montreal. Even if you’re not, you’ll feel extra energy when talking heads give way to flying fingers and nimble feet.

Though the King of Instruments produces a droning appeal in the hands of any plebeian player, here it roars and chirps and grunts and hollers with joy. Of course, most of the documentary depicts these musicians practicing and philosophizing and doing mundane things, presented in a mundane and not always compelling way. But when they play, it rises to another sphere.

Writer-director-producer Stacey Tenenbaum often skirts important questions a viewer might have: What do judges look for at international competitions? What kinds of lives do these rising stars have away from the instrument? (Maybe none.) What made the players fall in love with organs, anyhow – we do get a bit of that – and what makes this contest different from a piano or violin showdown? What kinds of futures do they envision for themselves?

The organists all seem good-natured, proud yet modest. We root equally for 19-year-old Sebastian Heindl, a Leipziger from the city of Sebastian Bach; Yuan Shen, a Chinese woman whose father is her mentor and tai chi partner; Thomas Gaynor, a New Zealander who’s burning out on major competitions; Alcee Chriss III, a Texan who flirts with the idea of throwing in some jazz; and Nick Cappozoli, a Pittsburgher whose teacher approves of his technique but urges him to be more daring.

Yet great documentaries give us someone to root against: an egomaniacal competitor, a ruthless tyrant, a company that’s defrauding people or polluting the skies. We have to want someone to win and someone to lose. There’s mild interest here in who will come out on top. But as we don’t want anyone in particular to triumph, and we don’t know why one player is considered better than another, we mostly sit back and enjoy marvelous sounds. (Alas, Tenenbaum doesn’t identify pieces as we listen.)

The film sent me to my music collection, where I put on Bach’s fugues and preludes, a “symphony” by Charles Widor (as he called solo pieces), even Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. (That’s his third, which the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will perform in March at Belk Theater. I’m not sure how, as the gorgeous pipes at the rear of the stage aren’t connected to anything.) Ultimately, the best thing about “Pipe Dreams” was that it had me pondering the glories of the organ all over again.

Pipe Dreams’ is playing in select screenings across the country. Learn more about a screening of the film in Charlotte on November 20. And use the code PIPEdreams10 for 10% off your ticket.