Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Mozart's Requiem

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Mozart's Requiem

Article excerpt

Glenn Gould used to say that Mozart died too late rather than too early. The remark was intended to get up the nose of Mozart-lovers and it succeeded. What a nerve, coming from a pianist whose own reputation peaked in his early 20s, with his first Goldbergs, and was especially tarnished by his Mozart piano sonatas, which he butchered in order to demonstrate their supposed faults.

But still... Gould wasn't the first person to wonder if there was a slight diminuendo in Mozart's creativity in the couple of years before he died in 1791 at the age of 35.

The last concerto, for clarinet, has a wistful, naive perfection that doesn't fire up the neural pathways to the same extent as say, the C minor Piano Concerto of 1786. The Prussian string quartets aren't as inventive as the earlier set dedicated to Haydn. The Magic Flute is glorious, but you don't find yourself thinking 'I can't believe he just did that', as you do at the end of Act Two of Figaro when Mozart keeps tossing characters into the ensemble in a head-spinning contrapuntal miracle.

The last piano concerto, No. 27 in B flat, really makes me worry that old Glenn had a point. The gentle finale is the work of a genius -- but an annoying genius affecting childlike gemütlich simplicity. That's admittedly not a description that fits his last opera, La clemenza de Tito, but what a shame that its stretches of top-notch Mozart weren't saved for a less arthritic vehicle.

And the very last composition, the Requiem? That's a tricky one, because it's not all by Mozart. Famously, the composer finished only the first movement and detailed sketches; these were orchestrated and missing movements composed by his pupil, Franz Süssmayr.

This leaves us with a cloudy cocktail of pure Mozart, Mozart-cum-Süssmayr and pure Süssmayr. We know where the manuscript breaks off -- but not where Mozart ends, because the composer left verbal instructions (though the deathbed dictation in Amadeus is fiction). We can hear that some passages are clunky -- once they've been pointed out by scholars. The trouble is that we detect the dreaded Süssmayr in different places, depending on which experts we've listened to.

To complicate matters, some editions of the Requiem prune Süssmayr to make him translucently Mozartian, while others try to delete him and fill the gaps with pastiche. Also, in 1962 the beginning of an 'Amen' fugue destined for the Requiem turned up. It lasts 20 seconds.

I've never enjoyed 'completions': it's impossible to forget that the authorship of the notes keeps changing and that often you're listening to two composers at once. …

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