On 6th October, Bergen Philharmonic live stream their performance of Honegger’s Third Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem, available to watch free on Bachtrack At Home. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at the last year of Mozart’s life and the events surrounding the Requiem.

Hermann von Kaulbach's <i>Mozart's Last Days</i>, 1873 © Wikimedia Commons | Public domain
Hermann von Kaulbach's Mozart's Last Days, 1873
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain


There’s rarely a more romanticised event than the death of a famous artist. If that artist is relatively young, and also happens to be considered one of the most preternaturally gifted musicians to have ever lived, then the potential for mythologising is even greater. The final months of Mozart’s life are clouded by the controversies surrounding his final, incomplete work, the Requiem, with the picture of a tragic artist, wracked by financial worries and inexorably sliding into depression and death firing imaginations. Yet at the start of 1791, the year in which he died, the composer’s prospects looked far from bleak.

In that year, Mozart was actually in better financial shape than he had been for a long time (though he was still occasionally obliged to call in the odd monetary favour from his Freemason friends). As his letters reveal, he was passionately in love with his wife, Constanze, and the future looked bright for him professionally, having been invited to join Haydn in London for the 1792 season.

Mozart spent the early part of the year writing, socialising and composing dance tunes. Yet he was still looking out for extra revenue streams. When he learned that Leopold Hofmann, Kapellmeister in Vienna, was seriously ill, he quickly applied to work as his unpaid assistant – the insinuation being that, when the old conductor finally succumbed, Mozart would take up his highly lucrative post. Ironically, it was Hofmann who would survive for longer.

Joseph Lange's portrait of Constanze Mozart, 1782 © Wikimedia Commons | Public domain
Joseph Lange's portrait of Constanze Mozart, 1782
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

As the year progressed, Mozart’s creativity seems to have intensified. When Constanze, pregnant with their son Franz, left to convalesce in the spa town of Baden in June, the composer was stricken with longing and separation anxiety. However, Constanze’s absence may have given him the push to start work on a major new work: “Out of sheer boredom, I wrote an aria for my opera, today,” he wrote. The opera in question was The Magic Flute, a work full of veiled Masonic references like the three chords in the Overture corresponding with the Freemasons’ “power of three” axiom. At the same time, the composer was working hard on another opera, La clemenza di Tito, a work which had been commissioned as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. But amidst all this frantic work came another commission – one that would feed powerfully into the Mozart myth.

A messenger arrived from Vienna, asking Mozart how long it would take for him to write a Requiem mass for his employer. The conditions of the commission were rather unusual: Mozart was not to make copies of the work, and the first performance of the piece must be reserved for the commissioner. What’s more, the identity of the mysterious patron was not to be known to the composer. Not in the position to turn down such a lucrative job, Mozart agreed and was paid a fee, which the unknown patron promised to supplement on completion of the work. But first, Mozart had more pressing engagements to see to in Prague.

Johann Donat's portait of Leopold II © Wikimedia Commons | Public domain
Johann Donat's portait of Leopold II
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

While rushing to complete The Magic Flute, Mozart attended Leopold’s coronation celebrations, where a badly-received première of clemenza was performed. Overwork began to affect the composer’s health, but that didn’t stop him from composing one of his best-loved works, the Clarinet Concerto, for his friend, and fellow Mason, Anton Stadler. With its wistful, serene tone, many have read the concerto as an “autumnal” statement by Mozart, perhaps aware of the waning of his physical powers.

Indeed, as the autumn of 1791 progressed, a marathon work schedule began to take its toll. A combination of a successful 20-night run of , intensive work on the Requiem and poor weather saw Mozart finally taken ill after conducting the première of the Clarinet Concerto. In early November he wrote to Constanze: “One must work hard; and I like hard work.” Yet by now, illness and overwork had left him bedridden with rheumatism and stomach pains. The absence of Constanze, who was again in Baden, would likely have exacerbated his mental state and, according to some accounts, Mozart began to believe that he’d been poisoned. Others state that he’d become convinced that the Requiem he was engaged in writing was to be for his own funeral.

Yet his mind was still on music. In late November he convinced musicians from the nearby Freihaustheater to come to his house and sing through the parts of the Requiem that he’d so far completed. This they did, while gathered round the bedridden composer, who bravely attempted to sing the alto parts himself. Mozart must have known the gravity of his situation, though: pulling his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr close, he instructed him on how to complete the piece.

Mozart died in the early hours of the 5th December, leaving only the Introit and Kyrie sections completed. He’d also written out the voice and bass parts for the Dies irae up to the Hostias section, with Lacrimosa stopping abruptly after eight bars. Constanze, while grieving for her husband, nevertheless had some shrewd decisions to make. In order to receive the rest of the money from the mysterious patron, the piece had to be completed. What’s more, the patron needed to believe that the Requiem had been wholly completed by Mozart. The first person she approached was the composer Joseph Eybler who, shrinking from the enormity of the task, passed it on to Süssmayr. Eventually, the completed Requiem was sent to the commissioner with Mozart’s forged signature in early 1792.

A page from the <i>Requiem</i> manuscript © Wikimedia Commons | Public domain
A page from the Requiem manuscript
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

But who was the shadowy commissioner? We now know it was Count Franz von Walsegg, a patron of the arts and amateur musician who was known to commission works by composers and then pass them off as his own. The Requiem itself had been commissioned to commemorate the death of his young wife. The music itself illustrates Mozart’s absorption of earlier styles toward the end of his life, and particularly the work of Bach and Handel (particularly Handel’s Messiah). These Baroque archaisms, however, are coupled with a more modern approach to instrumentation as seen in the use of trombones and basset horns, which lends this sacred music a more weighty texture. The extent to which Süssmayr relied on Mozart’s notes to complete the work is a cause for much scholarly debate. Constanze asserted that he had used Mozart’s “little scraps of paper” to finish off the piece, while Süssmayr held that the Sanctus and Agnus Dei were all his own. With the waters around this piece of music history perhaps irreversibly muddied, it might be best to bear Beethoven’s words on the Requiem in mind: “If Mozart did not write the music, then the man who wrote it was a Mozart.”

Folklore and rumour abounded in the aftermath of Mozart’s death, abetted to some extent by Constaze’s attempts to keep the collaborative nature of the Requiem a secret. Count Walsegg’s messenger became the devil in disguise, and Mozart’s death became his murder by rival composer Antonio Salieri (a theory brought to life in Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri). Yet for those focussed solely on the music, the a tantalising glimpse of what Mozart could have achieved as a composer of sacred music: the heavenly orchestrator that might have been.

Bachtrack At Home has an array of on-demand video performances of Mozart’s music, including including two major late works, the 40th and 41st Symphonies, both completed in 1788.