Mozart's Requiem, completed by Robert Levin
Why does the “Completed by” line, following “Composed by W.A.Mozart,” matter so much, when we consider Mozart’s Requiem? Scholars have long struggled to determine just how much of the Requiem actually belongs to Mozart. The composer’s final and unfinished work, it was commissioned by Count Franz von Wallsegg, who wished to have it performed, as his own composition, in memory of his dead wife. Mozart died before completing it; his wife Constanze decided to have it completed in secrecy, so that she could present it as Mozart’s work and collect the commission fee. Four musicians—friends and students of Mozart—aided in the hasty work of finishing the piece. Foremost among these was Mozart’s assistant, Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803); he was aided by Jakob Freistädtler, Joseph Eybler, and Abbé Maximilian Stadler. Their completed version of the Requiem was sent to the Count under a forged signature in Süssmayr’s hand, after Constanze had it copied. It is in this version that more than two centuries of listeners have encountered the Requiem.
Not long after, however, Süssmayr and Constanze came clean about what they had done, claiming that other than a “few scraps of music” which Constanze had handed over to Süssmayr, those portions of the original manuscript that were not in Mozart’s hand, were completely Süssmayr’s work. This prompted counter-claims from outside observers, who declared that Süssmayr was not a good enough composer to have produced this music. On the one hand, they acknowledged such Süssmayrisms as clumsy voice leading; thick, muddy orchestration; and conflicts with normal 18th century church music practice; but the fundamental nature and quality of the music, and the integration of musical motives throughout the work, were not similar to that on display in Süssmayr’s other works.
Spurred by Wolfgang Plath’s unearthing in 1960 of one of the “few scraps of music,” a number of musicians have attempted to eliminate from the Requiem the deficiencies introduced by Süssmayr, replacing them with music that is more in keeping with the Mozartean idiom. These “completers” include Robert Levin, Franz Beyer, H.C.Robbins Landon, Richard Maunder, and Duncan Bruce. Each has focused on universally acknowledged problems, proposing interesting solutions. Levin’s completion has gained considerable traction among top tier performing groups; Levin presents convincing arguments for the decisions he has made, and his finished completion acknowledges both the work’s traditional reliance upon Süssmayr, and the findings of more recent musical scholarship. This is the completion Chorale will present at our March 25 performance.
Süssmayr was no Mozart, to be sure. Still, we have little reason to doubt that Mozart discussed the Requiem with Süssmayr, and may even have given him detailed instructions concerning the unfinished sections. If nothing else, Süssmayr’s completion is an authentic 18th-century work with 200 years of performance tradition behind it. For these reasons, Levin is at pains in his 1996 completion “to revise not as much, but as little as possible.” Levin, a Mozart pianist (on the fortepiano) renowned for his spirited piano concerto recordings and brilliantly improvised cadenzas, approaches the Requiem with the goal of clarifying the choral component by thinning out the excessively dense texture of much of the orchestration completed by Süssmayr et al. Levin’s lighter, more transparent instrumentation places the voices at the expressive center of the piece. Levin has also composed an entirely new Amen fugue for the close of the Lacrimosa to end the Sequence, based on the recently discovered “scrap of music.” This new fugue follows 18th-century practice in that it is non-modulating, and completes a structure in which each major section of the Requiem culminates in a fugue.
I personally have sung the original Süssmayr, the Beyer, and the Levin completions on numerous occasions. I can promise that the spirit of Mozart reigns over each of them. Caught up in this spirit, neither the listener nor the performer stands outside of the work, observing or judging the completion at hand. The shattering impact of this music exists outside and beyond such viewpoints, valuable though they are.