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Mozart Requiem

Program Notes

Dr. Beth Fleming

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
  • Don Giovanni—Overture
On October 28, 1787, the day before its premiere in Prague, Mozart entered in the catalog of his compositions, "The Rake Punished, or, Don Giovanni, opera buffa (comic opera) in two acts." The opera centers on Don Giovanni, the seducer of 2,000 women, who murders the father of one of his victims in a street fight.  In time, he finds himself in a churchyard in front of the statue of his victim, which he jokingly invites to dinner. To his surprise, the statue accepts the invitation.  When the unwelcome apparition arrives, it announces that Don Giovanni is a doomed man; the earth opens and Hell's flames swallow the miserable reprobate

Before Don Giovanni, overtures in classical opera rarely foreshadowed the drama to come.  This Overture, however, provides more than a hint of what is to follow.  The supremely ominous opening music recurs when the statue of the Commendatore comes magically to life to demand that Don Giovanni repent his misspent life.  The darkly dramatic opening is only a feint, however; the music soon hurries off with the exuberance, vitality and virility of Don Giovanni himself, interrupted by suggestions of the conflict that he inevitably brings upon himself.

Over time, the German Romantic movement came to focus less on the Don's amorous exploits than on the severe morality that sends him to Hell before the audience's very eyes.  To German audiences, Don Giovanni was not the comic opera that Mozart obviously intended when he entered it into his catalogue of compositions.  Instead it morphed into a moral lesson, a veritable musical sermon on the consequences of unfettered depravity.  Even today, Don Giovanni continues to defy simple classification. Its music is light and often comedic; yet the situations the music depicts are incongruously serious.

  • Don Giovanni "Dalla sua pace" aria of Don Ottavio Act 1, Scene 3
The beautiful Donna Anna is momentarily perplexed when she finds that her masked seducer was not her betrothed, Don Ottavio.  When she discovers that malefactor has also murdered her father in a street fight, her musical language is angry, yet firm in her demand for vengeance. Don Ottavio's aria, "Dalla sua pace," gives us the distinct impression that though sympathetic, he is not quite convinced.  In it he seems to avoid a clear and decisive conclusion, and one can clearly hear this indecisiveness in the music.

Dalla sua pace la mia dipende;
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende,   
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà.   
S'ella sospira, sospiro anch'io;   
È mia quell'ira, quel pianto è mio;   
E non ho bene, s'ella non l'ha.   

On her peace of mind depends mine too,
what pleases her gives life to me,
what grieves her wounds me to the heart.
If she sighs, I sigh with her;
her anger and her sorrow are mine,
and joy I cannot know unless she share it.

Translation by Camila Argolo Freitas Batista

  • Don Giovanni "In quail eccessi, o Numi" & "Mi tradi, quell' alma ingata" Donna Elvira Act 2 Scene 2

In this aria, Donna Elvira, a noblewoman seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni, expresses her conflicting feelings about the scoundrel.  Sung in the cemetery where the Commendatore is buried, the aria eloquently foretells the fate of the master of seduction, while betraying her secret sorrow about the scoundrel's impending doom.

In quali eccessi, o Numi,                    
in quai misfatti orribili, tremendi            
è avvolto il sciagurato!                       
Ah no! non puote tardar l'ira del cielo, 
la giustizia tardar.                           
Sentir già parmi la fatale saetta,             
chi gli piomba sul capo!                       
Aperto veggio il baratro mortal!...        
Misera Elvira! che contrasto d'affetti     
in sen ti nasce!                                
Perchè questi sospiri?                          
e quest'ambascie?                               

Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata,                  
Infelice, o Dio!, mi fa.                      
Ma tradita e abbandonata,                     
Provo ancor per lui pietà.                  
Quando sento il mio tormento,                 
Di vendetta il cor favella;                    
Ma, se guardo il suo cimento,                  
Palpitando il cor mi va.                       

In what excesses, O Heavens,
In what horrible, terrible crimes
The wretch has involved himself!
Ah no! The wrath of Heaven cannot delay,
Justice cannot delay.
I already sense the fatal bolt
Which is falling on his head!
I see the mortal abyss open!...
Unhappy Elvira! what a conflict of feelings
Is born in your breast!
Why these sighs?
And these pains?

That ungrateful soul betrayed me,
O God, how unhappy he made me!
But, though betrayed and abandoned,
I still know pity for him.
When I feel my suffering,
My heart speaks of vengeance;
But when I see the danger he's in,
My heart beats for him.

Translation by Jane Bishop

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
  • Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
The final three works on today's concert are linked by the fact that each one  -- Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), the Requiem, and Ave verum Corpus – was composed in the last year of Mozart's life. The Magic Flute was completed and performed just three months before his death.

The Magic Flute is regarded as one of the greatest of operas.  The complicated story is difficult to summarize, with its whimsical libretto and collection of obviously symbolic characters; but its basic themes are the contrast between good and evil and the redeeming power of true love.  Sarastro, the high priest of an enlightened brotherhood that many equate with Freemasonry, abducts Pamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night.  The Queen sends Prince Tamino to save Pamina.  He not only rescues her but also falls in love and comes to accept Sarastro as an incarnation of virtue. At this point, The Magic Flute changes from a dreamlike fairy tale to an allegory of the Enlightenment, in which Tamino must repress his desire for Pamina in order to gain entry into the Temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature. After many trials, love and goodness triumph; Sarastro overcomes the Queen of the Night, clearing the way for Tamino and Pamina to be united.

Both Mozart and the friend for whom he wrote the opera were Masons, and Die Zauberflöte includes a great deal of Masonic symbolism.  Writing of the triumph of light over darkness, of humanistic ideals and of perfect love sought and found, Mozart created music of extraordinary beauty and evocativeness for this opera. 

  • "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" Pamina aria from Act 2, Scene 6

The beautiful Pamina is attracted by the playing of Tamino's flute and is hurt when he does not speak to her.  In fact, he is under a vow of silence. and her safety depends on his muteness.

Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,       
Ewig hin der Liebe Glück!           
Nimmer kommt ihr Wonnestunde       
Meinem Herzen mehr zurück!       
Sieh', Tamino, diese Tränen,       
Fließen, Trauter, dir allein!           
Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen,       
So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!           

Ah, I feel it, it has disappeared
Forever gone, love's  happiness!
Nevermore will come the hour of bliss
Back to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone!
If you don't feel the longing of love
Then there will be peace in death!

Translation by Lea F. Frey

  • "Der, Welcher wandert diese Straße voll Beschwerden" Ensemble Finale to Act 2—duet of the armed men
As Tamino contemplates his final initiation rite, two armed men warn him of the difficulties awaiting him: an Initiate is purified by passing through fire, water, air and earth. Should he overcome the terrors of death, then he will be enlightened and free to dedicate himself to the mysteries of Isis.   The texture of this section hearkens back to the chorale preludes perfected by J.S. Bach; and the melody of the intricate duet is adapted from a Lutheran chorale, Ach Gott, von Himmel sieh 'darein, in homage to the earlier composer.  This is an enchanting, invigorating work, where older compositional techniques link with harmonic innovations to create a powerful, convincing work of art.

Der, welcher wandelt diese Straße       
voll Beschwerde, wird rein           
Durch Feuer, Wasser, Luft und Erde.       
Wenn er des Todes Schrecken       
Überwinden kann, schwingt er sich       
Von der Erde Himmelan;           
Erleuchtet, wird er dann          
im Stande sein, sich den Mysterien        
Der Isis ganz au weihn.           

He who wanders this street
Full of hardship, becomes clean
Through fire, water, air, and earth.
If he the terror of Death
Can overcome, he vaults
From the earth, heavenward;
Illuminated, he will be in good
Standing, to consecrate himself
Entirely to Isis.

Translation by Lea F. Frey

  • March Prelude to Act II

This stately march opens Act II, when Zarastro and all the priests of the Temple ceremoniously process into the palm grove where Tamino will be initiated into the order.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)

  • Requiem for soloists, chorus, and orchestra

Mozart was a busy man during the late summer and fall of 1791, racing to fulfill a stack of commissions.  La Clemenza di Tito premiered in Prague on September 6, and three weeks later The Magic Flute debuted in Vienna. In October he finished his Clarinet Concerto, and on November 18, in probably his last public appearance, he conducted a new cantata for his Masonic lodge.  He died on December 5.

After all this activity, only one major work lay on his desk unfinished at the time of his death: the Requiem. Much romance and mystery have surrounded this work and its supposed connection with the composer's own death; but they largely dissipate when we concentrate on the facts that we know.

In July, 1791, Count Franz von Walsegg, through an anonymous emissary, promised Mozart a generous commission to compose a Requiem, to be performed annually in memory of the Count's late wife.  Half of the fee was paid in advance with the remainder due upon completion.  One much-debated question has been why Count Walsegg sought out Mozart, who was not known in Vienna as a composer of sacred music.  In fact, Mozart certainly knew the Count and probably the Countess as well.  Walsegg frequently invited musicians to perform at his country home, and owned the house where one of Mozart's friends lived.  As a child actress, the Countess had appeared on stage alongside Mozart's sister-in-law. 

The use of an anonymous intermediary may be connected with the Count's habit of paying composers handsomely for a work and then passing it off as his own invention.  Contemporary composers were well aware of this propensity.  The Count may therefore have wanted to conceal his identity as the commissioner.  And indeed: the dark, gaunt emissary described in old Mozart biographies was actually Franz Anton Leigeb, an employee of the Count who was tall, thin, and because of his Turkish ancestry, dark-skinned.

Mozart set to work on the Requiem in October.  His many letters from this period to his wife Constanze are teasing, full of high spirits, love and affection  -- not, as some tales imply, those of a man paralyzed with fear over his own impending death.  He was actively planning trips to England and Russia, negotiating commissions with Hungary and Amsterdam, anticipating a possible appointment as the Music Director of St. Stephen's Cathedral.  Nothing even suggests the onset of a serious illness until the middle of November.

In that month, a viral epidemic swept through Vienna.  On November 20 Mozart took to his bed and survived only two more weeks. The Requiem remained unfinished simply because among Mozart's many commissions all due on top of one another, it was the next on his list to complete.  The autograph manuscripts show no signs of haste or fatigue in what we know Mozart completed himself.  Right to the end, it seems, Mozart had no idea that he was soon to die. 

Before he died, Mozart was able to finish only the Requiem's opening movement, the Requiem aeternam, much of the Kyrie and portions of the Sequence, the long poem beginning with Dies Irae and ending with Lacrimosa.  Sketches or drafts remain in varying states of completion for a few of the other middle sections; nothing at all remains of Mozart's ideas for the concluding movements. 

After Mozart's death, Constanze was faced with the task of supporting herself and their two young children and desperately needed the other half of Count Walsegg's fee.  She eventually pressed Mozart's assistant, Franz Xaver Süssmayr into service, who completed the work in February 1792.  The Count received the manuscript, and Constanze was paid the promised sum.

Scholars since have diligently attempted to distinguish Mozart's work from Süssmayr's mishandling of his intentions.  Today's performance of the work uses an edition of the music by Franz Beyer made in the early 1970's in Munich.  Beyer's completion mainly deals with improving and revising Süssmayr's orchestration, but retains the occasional alteration to the voice parts that publishers and editors before him had inserted into the music. Despite the fact that only a fraction of the Requiem was written by Mozart himself, it is numbered among his most beloved and most frequently performed works. Something about this music shines through the myths and tales surrounding it to touch and enchant each successive generation. 

There are five large sections of the Requiem, each concluded by a fugue.  Throughout the entire work, the chorus drives Mozart's music; the darkly colored orchestra is simply a support to the chorus.  Yet its support is vivid and evocative.  The Sequence, for instance, at the words "Tuba mirum" is accompanied by a solo trombone.  When the "Rex tremendae" appears, the orchestra's regal dotted rhythms match that text.  At "Confutatis" the orchestra provides an intensely forceful, even fiery accompaniment; at "Lachrymosa" we hear sighing strings.  Mozart connected motives in a new and creative way.  Yet at the same time he constantly acknowledged his debt to earlier traditions in church music.  His fugues hearken back to Bach; and in the first movement alone -- indisputably all Mozart's work -- he quotes Michael Haydn's Requiem, Handel's funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, a chorus from the Messiah and a Gregorian chant.
The closest comparisons to the style of the Requiem are found not in Mozart's other church music, but instead in The Magic Flute and the Masonic choral music he wrote toward the end of his life.  It is scored for a very dark orchestra, with no upper woodwinds—no flutes or oboes or clarinets—and no French horns.  The resulting sonority is solemn, rich and warm. Trombones especially are prominent. In Mozart's time trombones were used in church, not yet in symphonies, and for him, the trombone's sound always pointed to the presence of the divine. 

In the end, we are mistaken to believe that Mozart's Requiem is incomplete because of foul play or Mozart's fear of impending death.  To him the Requiem was simply the next work, the next commission.  He could not have known that it would be his last and that he would not live to bring it to completion.  All Mozart or only snippets of Mozart, it truly matters not.  This Requiem is without a doubt a masterpiece of sublime choral and instrumental brilliance.

  • Ave verum Corpus, motet for chorus, strings and organ

Near the end of his life, Mozart wrote this brief, ethereal motet at the request of a friend who was a schoolmaster in Baden, near Vienna.  It was his first sacred work since his unfinished Mass in C minor ten years earlier, and was written to be performed on Good Friday.  The text is a simple four-line communion hymn from the Catholic liturgy.  In 46 short measures, Mozart transforms the timeless text into a serene testament to the depth of his own spirituality.  The motet is glorious, particularly in the final line of text that translates "Be for us a foretaste of the trial of death."  Here Mozart achieves a sense of the eternal and infinite that his unfinished Requiem never quite attains.  Composed in June of 1791, barely six months before Mozart's own death, Ave verum Corpus is a particularly fitting way to end a concert festival honoring the 250th anniversary of one of the most magnificent masters of melody of all time.



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