October 26th, 2011

Mozart and the Angel of Death

Requiem_MozartWhen I was a teenager, my parents had the wisdom to give me a gift that I didn’t yet know I’d want. My love for Alanis Morissette and Red Hot Chili Peppers – the other two CDs I was given that year – has long since passed (RIP), but my gushing adoration for Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor lives strong.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but Requiem is truly the most powerful music I’ve ever heard. At times furious and zealous, then tender and solemn, Requiem is a fourteen-movement experience. When I saw the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform it, I was totally overwhelmed and emotional, much in the same way people get when they see Handel’s Messiah performed. The library’s copy of Requiem, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, has an urgency and command that makes it very compelling.

And the mystery behind the music makes listening to it all the more exhilarating. Exhausted and broke, 35-year-old Mozart is visited by a stranger dressed in gray. The stranger hands him an anonymous letter, commissioning him to compose music for a funeral. The request is given with a blank check, so despite Mozart’s misgivings, he’s in no position to decline. Even still, Mozart is struck by the chilling nature of the circumstances. Sickness befalls Mozart, making him increasingly convinced that the mysterious visitor was the Angel of Death himself. The taste of death is now on my tongue, and I can already smell the grave.*

The inexplicable foreboding proved prophetic. Mozart died that year, never completing Requiem, arguably one of his finest works. Thanks to Franz Süssmayr, Mozart’s protégée, the unfinished parts were completed.

The exact details of Mozart’s brush with “Death” have been subject of scholarly debate and artistic imaginings, most notably the play-turned-movie Amadeus. In Amadeus, the Angel of Death is Antonio Salieri, a fellow composer, embittered by Mozart’s success and talent. While it made for great drama, we now know that the commission actually came from Count Franz von Walsegg, an unscrupulous aristocrat who stole musical scores in order to feign authorship. In this case, the Count was mourning the loss of his wife and wanted a musical masterpiece written in her honor.

While you might not be familiar with its name, you’ve likely heard parts of Requiem many times. Here’s a short list of where you might have heard it:

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Movies: The Big Lebowski, Elizabeth, Eyes Wide Shut, Primal Fear, X2, Watchmen, and Amadeus

Want to know more? Place a hold on Amadeus (winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture) here online or ask our staff. Learn more about Mozart’s life and legacy in Jeremy Siepmann’s book Mozart: His Life & Music here. (CDs included!)

What are you listening to this time of year?

*words spoken to Sophie, Mozart’s sister-in-law




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