10 December 1791: Humanity hears the Requiem for the first time

In the evening of 10 December 1791 the Requiem was heard for the first time! Gathered in St Michael’s Church to attend the memorial for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the audience, holding their breath, listened to the heavenly masterpiece that Mozart had only heard within himself. As the Requiem unfolded to the world, Mozart was offering humanity his last, most precious gift, and the proof that he will go on living forever, through his divine Music.  

Requiem - Introitus

High Altar of the Michaelerkirche in Vienna

Fall of the Angels - monumental alabaster Rococo sculpture 1782 by Lorenzo Mattieli - Michaelerkirche

Church Altar of St Michael Church, Vienna

20 November 1791 – Mozart takes to his bed with the illness that will eventually kill him. 

4 December 1791 – Around 2 p.m. some of the movements of the Requiem are sung through by Mozart, Süssmayr, Constanze, Schak, Hofer and Gerl. Among them the ‘Recordare‘, which Mozart loved dearly. 

5 December 1791 – Around 1 a.m. Mozart dies. He leaves an unfinished score of the Requiem, as well as some sketches and “scraps of paper”.  

6 December 1791 – Mozart is buried in St. Marx Cemetery.  

Before 10 December 1791 – Freystadtler enters strings and woodwinds in the “Kyrie” fugue of Mozart’s Requiem score (by and large merely doubling the vocal parts) in preparation for the upcoming performance.  

10 December 1791 – A requiem mass for Mozart is held in St. Michael’s Church in Vienna, at which a part or parts of the unfinished Requiem are sung. The staff of the Theather auf der Wieden participate in the memorial.  

Michaelerkirche - interior

Fresco with angels singing in St Michael's Church, Vienna

Mozart remained completely conscious during his illness right to the end and died calmly, although regretfully. This can be readily understood, when one considers that Mozart had beeen officially appointed to the post of Kapellmeister in the Church of St. Stephen, and had the happy prospect of living peacefully without financial worries. He had also received, almost simultaneously, commissions from Hungary and Amsterdam, as well as many orders and contracts for works to be delivered at regular intervals.  

This extraordinary accumulation of happy auguries for a better future, the sad state of his financial affairs as they actually existed, the sight of his unhappy wife, the thought of his two young children; all these did not make the bitterness of his death any sweeter, particularly as this much admired artist, in his thirty-fifth year, had never been a stoic: “Just now”, thus he often lamented in his illness, “when I could have gone on living so peacefully, I must depart. I must leave my art now that I am no longer a slave of fashion, am no longer tied to speculators; when I could follow the flights of my fantasy, the path along which my spirit leads me, free and independent to write only when I am inspired, whatever my heart dictates. I must leave my family, my poor children, just when I would have been in a better condition to care for them….”  

On the day of his death he had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed. “Did I not say before that I was writing this Requiem for myself?” After saying this, he looked yet again with tears in his eyes through the whole work. This was the last sad sight of his Music and the painful farewell to his beloved Art, which was destined to become immortal.  

Gravediggers deposited Mozart in a “normal simple grave” (allgemeines einfaches Grab), not a communal (gemeinschaftlich) pit. Excepting the mausoleums of the aristocratic and wealthy, all burial sites constituted not personal property, but leaseholds of ten years: every decade the authorities plowed them, sowing back into the soil whatever stray bones turned up and thus preparing for new occupants. Such a furrowing dispersed whatever remained of Mozart and demolished a memorial marking his grave. Within a month of his death, a notice in the Wiener Zeitung (31 December 1791) had alluded to this stone table, the contributor suggesting an epitaph in Latin for it:  

“As a child, he who lies here,

through his harmonies, added to the wonders of the world;

as a man, he surpassed Orpheus.

Go your way

and pray earnestly for his soul.”  

Four days after the burial, so the Auszug aller europäischen Zeitungen (European Press Digest) of 13 December reported, the Viennese “celebrated solemn obsequies for the great composer Mozart” in St. Michael’s. (Accross from the Hofburg and the Burgtheater, it functioned as both parish church to the court and chapel to its musicians’ special society, the Congregation of St. Cecilia, to which Mozart had belonged.) On the sixteenth, the Viennese journal Der heimliche Botschafter (The Secret Messenger), which circulated in scribes’ copies, identified the music at this service as “the requiem he composed during his final illness…” With remarkable speed, disciples had extracted from the score those parts that had reached performable state as, with no less urgency, singers and instrumentalists learned them. In view of the manuscript’s unfinished condition, only the first movement, and perhaps the second with some instrumental touches added, could have been performed with orchestra; the other sections very likely took the form of Mozart’s choruses sung by a quartet and supported by organ continuo; plainchant might have filled the missing sections. 

This is how Mozart’s Requiem must have sounded like on that day of

10 December 1791… 

Michaelerkirche, Alt Wien

Mozart Memorial in Michaelerkirche

Marble statue of The Deposition of Christ - Michaelerkirche Wien

Prague marked Mozart’s death four days later with a requiem (a setting by Franz Anton Rossler, also known as Antonio Rosetti) in St. Nicholas’s, packed by a throng of more than four thousand overflowing into the surrounding streets.  

It has taken perhaps two hundred years for the world to realize fully and in all its aspects what this loss has meant to music – and to humanity. Haydn said: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years!” Posterity has not seen it in two hundred.  

The 1714 Sieber organ at St Michael's Church, Vienna

(Excerpts from: Niemetschek: Leben des Kappellmeisters Mozart (Life of Mozart), published 1798; Christoph Wolff: Mozart’s Requiem (Historical and Analytical Studies, Documents, Score); Robert W. Gutman: Mozart, a Cultural Biography; Anton Herzog: True and Detailed History of the Requiem by W.A. Mozart. From its inception in the year 1791 to the present period of 1839 – incorporating information found in Stadler: Vertheidigung der Echtheit des Mozartischen Requiem)

Angel on the ceiling of Michaelerkirche, Vienna

Finally Süssmayr was persuaded to complete the unfinished great work, and he admits in letters to the music publishers (Breitkopf & Härtel) in Leipzig that during Mozart’s lifetime he played and sang through with him the pieces that had already been composed, namely “Requiem”, “Kyrie”, “Dies irae”, “Domine” and so forth, and that he (Mozart) very often discussed the completion of this work and communicated (to Süssmayr) the way and the reasons of his orchestration.  

Requiem - Introitus

Requiem - Dies Irae

Requiem - Lacrimosa

From this point, and up to the dispatch of the score to Herr Count, I am obliged to turn to Herr Abbe Stadler’s account, which I will quote here, because his two pamphlets may well not be in everyone’s possession. He says:” The first movement, ‘Requiem’ with the fugue, and the second, ‘Dies irae’, up to ‘Lacrimosa’, were for the most part orchestrated by Mozart himself, and there was not much more for Süssmayr to do than what most composers leave for their amanuenses to do. Süssmayr’s work really began with the ‘Lacrimosa’. But here too Mozart had written out the violins himself; and Sussmayr only finished it from after ‘judicandus homo reus’ to the end. Similarly, in the third movement, ‘Domine’, Mozart had written the violins’ music in this score, where the voices are silent; where the voices enter he had indicated the motives for the instruments here and there, but quite clearly. He gave the violins two and a half bars to perform alone before the ‘Quam olim’ fugue. He wrote two bars for the violins before the entry of the voices at ‘Hostias’, and eleven bars at ‘Memoriam facimus’, in his own hand. 

“We see nothing more from his pen after the end of ‘Hostias’ except the words ‘Quam olim da Capo’. This is the end of Mozart’s original autograph score.

Requiem - Quam Olim da capo

Mozart - portrait by Lange

The Michaelerkirche, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is one of the oldest churches in Vienna, a late Romanesque, early Gothic building, dating from about 1220-1240. Its present day aspect is unchanged since 1792. This church, close to the Michaeler wing of the Hofburg, used to be the parish church of the Imperial Court (it was then called ‘Zum heiligen Michael’).  

Michaelerkirche - Alt Wien 1

Michaelerkirche Wien 3

Michaelerkirche Wien 2

Michaelerkirche Wien 4

Angel on St Michael's Church, Vienna

Michaelerkirche - Alt Wien 2

The Michaelerkirche close to the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna

Michaelerkirche - Old Vienna

Vienna, St Michael's Church

Michaelerkirche Wien 1

Michaelerplatz und Michaelerkirche

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