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Tears for Mozart


Mozart's death mask
Mozart’s death mask

On the Impossibility of Finishing the Lacrymosa

My recent visit to Harvard’s Memorial Church, to hear Edward Jones’ superb student choir, aided by orchestra and soloists, rehearse the ever-enigmatic Mozart Requiem infused this writer with a mixture of both elation and melancholy. The elation came from hearing a group of young people, in this epoch of instant, technologized everything, and of general cultural amnesia, so passionately committed to transmitting a score from 1792 to a new generation of hearts and minds. Mozart lives!

The melancholy came from the reverse proposition: Mozart died. And he did so, young, in great pain, before finishing this work, leaving it in such a fragmentary state that at least one critic asserts that the so-called Mozart Requiem was in fact written by others, for Mozart. I don’t subscribe to that extreme position, but as I sit here this morning in front of my terminal, a facsimile of the messy, unhappy-looking Requiem manuscript on my screen, some of it in Mozart’s hand, some in other hands, I can at least understand that point of view.

I have turned to that manuscript, and to a number of other online sources, in order to help clarify my own, persistent sense of dissatisfaction, just about every time I have heard this Requiem, including the rehearsal of it last Thursday. It’s uncomfortable music, for a series of reasons, the fragmentary nature of what Mozart left his successors, and us, being the main and most important one.

During the Harvard dress rehearsal, one passage especially jumped out at me. The too-short Lacrymosa (only ten measures of which are, in the main, incontrovertibly by Mozart) failed to end with the two-chord plagal cadence in d, with a raised third, of the well-known Süssmayr [1] version. That completion was the “standard” version for a couple of centuries (one reading of the movement in this form can be heard here. Instead I heard a revised, partially recomposed version of the passage in F major (“Pie Jesu Domine”), and then, later, a newly-composed half-cadence on A major, followed immediately by an extensive “Amen” fugue in d minor that is nowhere to be found in the already-mentioned manuscript source that is partially in Mozart’s hand. The Harvard choir, sang the fugue under Jones’ leadership with energy and commitment. I was, nonetheless, not at peace with what I had heard.

Jones was performing from the much-discussed revision and edition of the Requiem by our own, brilliant Robert Levin. It contains extensive rethinking of the work in the light of more recent scholarship, and of Levin’s much-admired musicianship. In the case of the Lacrymosa, Levin has justified the fugal “Amen” on the basis of a manuscript draft by Mozart, found circa 1960 among sketches for other Requiem passages. Using an inversion of Mozart’s opening “Requiem aeternam” melody as a subject, the fugue is, to these ears, a somewhat hieratic and impersonal exercise,. There is a strong argument to be made that the fugue draft was conceived to follow the Lacrymosa, as a conclusion to the long Sequence portion of the mass. You can hear Levin’s proposed solution, revised Lacrymosa plus fugue, in a performance by Boston Baroque, about 19 minutes and 30 seconds into this clip.

Levin is not the only recent editor/reviser to accept this fugal movement as part of Mozart’s architectural scheme, and to include it, in one form or another, at the end of the Lacrymosa. There is a consensus on this point among him and two other recent revisers/reworkers of the Requiem, Richard Maunder and Duncan Druce. All of them opt for some version of the long, concluding fugue, in place of Süssmayr’s laconic (and, to my ears, tragic) cadence. In addition, Maunder and Druce actually recompose the Lacrymosa, much more drastically than Levin.

I next consulted Richard Maunder’s recomposition of the Lacrymosa, recorded circa 1990 (?) by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. (You can hear here at starting at 25’50”.) Prior to launching his version of the rediscovered d minor fugue, Maunder simply jettisons the intermediate passages ascribed to Süssmayr, and writes new music, pastiching motifs from earlier parts of the Requiem with thematic bits from the “Lacrymosa.” It’s an unconvincing exercise. He remains in d minor almost throughout, utterly eliminating the luminosity and tenderness of the well-timed F major “Pie Jesu” passage in Süssmayr’s completion. It’s different from what Süssmayr attempted, and one must suppose that a sense of novelty had a hand in convincing Hogwood to record this version, but I don’t like it much. Then, Maunder gets to his edition of the fugue. His proposal overall is generally less satisfactory than Levin’s more scholarly and responsible realization, in my view.

I finally listened to a perhaps lesser-known re-composition, dating from 1984 by the recently deceased (October, 2015) Duncan Druce. You can hear it here.

Druce’s version verges on science fiction. But it is the only one of these three that, in my view, makes a convincing musical case for including the “Amen” fugue. He does this by writing a lengthy extension to the few measures of the Lacrymosa that come in large part from Mozart. The fugue of this edition does not sound terribly out of place, because there is enough (original, non-Mozart) musical discourse preceding it to create an overall sense of form and proportion (four minutes of Lacrymosa-derived material, versus about two and one half for the fugue) The problem I had previously experienced with Levin and Maunder is that of proportion; in both their editions, the severe concluding fugue overwhelms the truncated Lacrymosa, with its sighing, yearning phrases, like a big Saint Bernard dog knocking over a one year old baby.

The issue with Druce, conversely, lies in content of his new, extended Lacrymosa passages. Mr. Druce was an estimable musician, but these new measures are not by Mozart, and it shows. As the saying goes, it’s not how long you make it, but how you make it long. Or, as Miles Davis reputedly said once to Coltrane, whose solos tended to go on and on, “Just take the freaking reed out of your mouth.” And yet we owe Druce one thank you, for at least showing us an acceptable architectural blueprint.

There are other completions of the Requiem, I learn via extended research (ahem, Wikipedia), by Franz Beyer, H.C. Robbins Landon, Simon Andrews, Benjamin-Gunnar Cors, Masato Suzuki, and yet others. I am not going to go there. I stay with these three modern editions, plus Süssmayr’s, and this one short movement, the Lacrymosa. Even with this modest sample, there are conclusions to be drawn.

My first conclusion is, despite the eminence and the assiduity of the three modern editors I have consulted – and the much better editorial judgement of the Levin edition—none of them have produced a final result clearly superior to Süssmayr’s. Mozart’s much-maligned, and unfairly maligned, assistant seems to have had, if not genius-level technique, a certain kind of good sense. He continues Mozart’s heart-rending theme for a few measures, then ends with those two “Amen” chords. Schluss. It’s too soon to be ending, and we all know it, but… It’s as if Süssmayr were saying, “The Big Man died. We must continue without the rest. He’s gone.” There is considerable wisdom in that conclusion, I think. We can never be satisfied with the Lacrymosa, but the humble, modestly-gifted assistant produced what I believe to be the least unsatisfactory solution. Try again and again we may, but all our knowledge and brilliance and hard work will not bring this lost music back.

Page two of the Lacrymosa. This is the manuscript that was delivered by Costanze, after her husband's death, to the eccentric count Walsegg, who had commissioned a Requiem mass. You can see clearly, in the fourth measure of this page, that another hand has continued the composition where Mozart left off."
Page two of the Lacrymosa. This is the manuscript that was delivered by Costanze, after her husband’s death, to the eccentric count Walsegg, who had commissioned a Requiem mass. You can see clearly, in the fourth measure of this page, that another hand has continued the composition where Mozart left off.”

Our failed efforts to better Süssmayr do have a noble side, however. We want to resuscitate, via force of will, something lost, something ineffable that cannot be recaptured. It’s a failed, heroic enterprise of a rather profound kind. And so, my second, sad, conclusion is that Death exists, after all in Arcadia. Orfeo tried to overcome it, and he could not. Mozart, the closest thing to a divinity the human race has yet produced, could not. And, dear brothers and sisters, gathered together at the Temple of Music, neither can we. This is the cause of Mozart’s tears, and of ours.

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He is currently preparing a book-length anthology of his writings on music.

[1]    Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803), Mozart’s associate and assistant, and a minor composer in his own right. He claimed authorship of the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei movements of the Requiem. His editions, additions and completions to Mozart’s unfinished work have been heavily criticized and second-guessed over the years, but they were the basis for most performances of the piece for numerous generations.

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  1. Thank you Joel Cohen for this incisive, lucid and deeply moving article.

    Comment by Sally Gordon Mark — November 3, 2015 at 4:17 pm

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