Mozart’s Requiem or a Requiem for Mozart? – David DeAngelo

That's how Druckenbrod of the P-G began his preview of this week's concert.  

And depending on whether one is looking for the former or the latter, one may come away with different opinions on Honeck's setting, though I would amend Andy's query into this:

Was it Mozart's Requiem or a requiem for Mozart using Mozart's Requiem?

First off let's set down some context.  The texts of the Roman Catholic Mass can be divided into two classes: those texts that more or less is constant regardless of the liturgical day (the Ordinary) and those texts that change according to the liturgical day (the Proper).  And these can then be divided into those texts that are sung and those that are spoken.

So to musicologists (a shiftless, reprobate band of ne'er-do-wells and scalawags if ever there was one) the mass movements usually studied are those from the Ordinary that are sung:

  1. Kyrie
  2. Gloria  
  3. Credo 
  4. Sanctus 
  5. Agnus Dei 

On the other hand, the Requiem Mass (Missa pro defunctis), according to my old red HAH-vuhd Dictionary of Music (p725):

…differs from the normal Mass chiefly in that it includes not only the items of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Santus, Agnus Dei) but also, and in fact more prominently, those of the Proper (Introit, Gradual, etc).

The Mass gets its name from the first word of the first line of it's introit ("Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine," "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord") and its history goes all the way back to the 15th century.  The earliest extant example is from the great Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (c 1410-1497), though a previous (and now lost) Requiem has been attributed to at least equally as great Guillaume DuFay (1397-1474).

So what of this piece?  This performance?  As Kanny of the Trib wrote:

Poignant circumstances surround Mozart's composition of the Requiem. Because of the mysterious nature of the commission Mozart received in July 1791 — from a stranger dressed entirely in black who would not identify himself in any way — the composer believed he was writing it for his own death. In fact, he was working on it while on his deathbed and left it unfinished.

And of Honeck's setting?  Back to Druckenbrod:

Like an architect who turns conventional wisdom on its head, Honeck sought to "complete" the spirit of the Requiem, by surrounding the fragment with music and texts on the subject of death. 

The program of Honeck's "Requiem: Mozart and Death in Music and Words" slightly resembled the outline of a funeral mass with bells, chant and biblical readings, but Honeck was going for an "impression" of death's meaning both to Mozart (in tender letter to his father) and to us (in poems about the Holocaust by Nelly Sachs and local student Matt May).

With this next rhetorical question, Andy hits the nail on the head:

When is the last time you heard a conductor have the conviction and the chutzpah to mess around with the likes of Mozart?

While he was thrilled at the attempt, I found myself wondering during the performance (and let me say right now that it was a great performance – of that there is no question) whether it was necessary to re-frame Mozart's great work in such a way.  Indeed, Andy touches on the issue a few paragraphs later: 

Textually, I had some issues. While Western society downplays our relationship with death like it did in Mozart's time, medieval times or earlier, I hardly think we are out of touch with it. Death is the ultimate personal affair, and everyone faces it differently, then or now.

I take Honeck's point that death has become so unfamiliar to us that we're terrified of it and that it was much more a part of life in Mozart's time: on the screens flanking the stage we read before the music started that five siblings of Mozart died as well as four of his six 6 children.  But while we have developed medicines to cure many diseases, we now have the means to commit genocide.  If the inclusion of the poetry of Nelly Sachs and Matt May are any indication however, we are all very well acquainted with the fact that death awaits us all.  Just not in the way Mozart was.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But perhaps I missed the point.  To re-frame Tom Lehrer into my own mid-life crisis balding paunchy graying at the temples mode, "It's a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age he'd already been dead 11 years."

So what do I know?

1 thought on “Mozart’s Requiem or a Requiem for Mozart? – David DeAngelo”

  • I would have preferred a different poem than Sachs, something more contemporary to or preceding the death of Mozart; perhaps this, and would that Lithgow could speak the speech, I pray thee, as I present it to you, trippingly on the tongue, and it would have been as this:
    COME away, come away, death,
    And in sad cypres let me be laid;
    Fly away, fly away, breath;
    I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
    My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
    O prepare it!
    My part of death, no one so true
    Did share it.
    Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
    On my black coffin let there be strown;
    Not a friend, not a friend greet
    My poor corse, where my bones shall be thrown:
    A thousand thousand sighs to save,
    Lay me, O, where
    Sad true lover never find my grave
    To weep there!
    William Shakespeare

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