This preview has been provided by the Greensboro Symphony.
David L. Nelson
Few pieces of classical music have become as large a part of popular culture as Mozart’s Requiem has in the role it played in the Academy Award winning movie, Amadeus. The film made Mozart a household name. It did more to bring his music into everyday life than a thousand concerts and compact disks. Peter Shaffer’s play and screenplay is an inspired piece of fictionalized history that tells of how Antonio Salieri plotted to defeat Mozart. It is full of imagination and intrigue, but, unfortunately, is not 100% true. Let us separate fact from fiction regarding Mozart’s death.
Mozart died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He received a third-class burial, which meant that his body was placed in an unmarked and anonymous grave. This poor treatment of such a genius was partly because the emperor had just decreed that burials should be modest, and also that the composer was buried before many people who would have contributed to a better funeral knew of his death.
For many years it was believed that Mozart was poisoned. These rumors started as early as New Year’s Eve, 1791. An obituary in the Berlin’s Musikalische Wochenblatt reported
Mozart is — dead. He was sickly when he returned home from Prague and remained ailing since then . . . Because his body swelled up after his death, it is even believed that he was poisoned.
At times Mozart even believed this. When he was working on the Requiem he told his wife, “I feel it very acutely. It won’t be long now: I’ve surely been given poison! I can’t let go of that thought.” Constanze never believed it.
The story strengthened when Salieri “confessed” that he poisoned Mozart. Salieri was delusional toward the end of his life, and few of the people who heard his “confession” believed him. Shortly before his death, Salieri put the record straight. He said,
Although this is my last illness, I can assure you on my word of honor that there is no truth to that absurd rumor; you know that I am supposed to have poisoned Mozart.
The Russian dramatist Aleksander Pushkin must have believed the rumors. In 1830, he wrote a short play in which Salieri does poison Mozart. It is aptly titled “Mozart and Salieri.”
Mozart’s Post Mortem
If Mozart was not poisoned, then how did he die? The cause of death was first thought to be “feverish prickly heat.” Later it was thought to be a “liver condition with terminal uremia.” Currently two theories exist. A 1972 report suggests rheumatic fever. A more recent study proposes that Mozart had the following sequence of illnesses in his final three weeks: streptococcal infection, Schönlein-Henoch Syndrome, renal failure, venesection(s), cerebral hemorrhage, terminal broncho-pneumonia.
Finally, let’s look at the Requiem. Was the commission conceived by Salieri as a way to drive Mozart mad? No. Was it some malicious plot to make Mozart believe he was writing a requiem for himself? No. Was it commissioned by an anonymous messenger? Yes, and that is where we need to begin.
Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach was a music lover and wealthy landowner from Lower Austria. On February 14, 1791, his young wife died. He came upon idea to anonymously commission Mozart to write a requiem mass that the count would pass off as his own. Walsegg-Stuppach would perform it, conducting it himself, on the anniversary of his wife’s death. He asked a neighbor to be an anonymous messenger and contact the composer. Of course, this became a important dramatic element of Amadeus.
Even after Mozart’s death, Walsegg-Stuppach persisted with his deception. He copied the music (which had been completed by Mozart’s students) into his own handwriting and performed it on December 11, 1793. The program listed the piece as “Requiem, composto del Conte Walsegg”! And on May 5th & 7th you can hear Mozart’s Requiem performed by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra — Don’t miss it!