Best Choral Performance
John Butt, conductor
(Matthew Brook, Rowan Hellier, Thomas Hobbs & Joanne Lunn; Dunedin Consort)
Gramophone Recording of the Month:
‘Purely on grounds of performance alone, this is one of the finest Mozart Requiems of recent years. As with all of Butt's recordings, however, this Mozart Requiem is something of an event. It is Butt's minute attention to these details, though, that makes this such a thrilling performance.'
In keeping with several other Dunedin projects, this provides the opportunity to re-imagine what this work may have sounded like at its very first performance. To this end, the recording will be the first not only to use this new edition, but also to present the work using forces close in style and scale to those at the first performances.
John Butt director
Joanne Lunn soprano
Rowan Hellier alto
Thomas Hobbs tenor
Matthew Brook bass
Mozart's Requiem - Reconstruction of First Performances
As a scholar once quipped in relation to Mozart's final work: 'Requiem, but no Piece'. Mozart's Requiem has been a site for controversy since almost the time of the composer's untimely death, and it is clear that it is never going to be complete, at least as a piece by Mozart. On the other hand, it is perhaps testimony to the quality of what does survive that musicians and scholars have given it such persistent attention. While some of its popularity can be attributed to romantic notions of the dying genius doing his utmost to crown his life's work in the most sublime fashion, there is no doubt that the vast proportion of the surviving material is remarkable in its musical cohesion and emotional power.
In the early nineteenth century, the controversy was over how much of the Requiem was really the work of Mozart and how much of it was completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. By the turn of our current century, the extent of Süssmayr's involvement had been clearly established - so far as is likely to be possible - and the discussion moved towards the question of whether modern scholars could provide a completion superior to Süssmayr's. Now that there are a number of 'new' versions of the Requiem, perhaps performing the 'original' completion is almost as controversial as performing a modern version
If Süssmayr's completion does contain obvious weaknesses in terms of certain movements (most obviously the 'Sanctus' and 'Osanna'), and of various details of part-writing and orchestration, Süssmayr remains the only figure in this who actually knew Mozart and shared essential elements of his musical culture. Moreover, it was Süssmayr's version that was known as 'the' Mozart Requiem for countless musicians and listeners until the last decades of the twentieth century. It provided material that finds echoes in several major composers (Verdi, Bruckner and Fauré immediately come to mind), so it would surely be wrong to discount a large period of productive reception on the pretext that inspired listeners were hearing partly in error.
The recent publication of David Black's new edition of Süssmayr's version provides an excellent opportunity to record the original completion yet again. Not only does the new edition show very clearly the areas completed by Mozart and the precise extent of Süssmayr's additions, it also presents several details that have been obscured by later 'improvements', particularly those added in the first published edition (which does not mention Süssmayr), by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1800. Black's new edition therefore returns the work to the state it was in during the first, crucial years of its exposure to the public, and this in turn provides an ideal opportunity to consider how the work may actually have sounded at its very first performance.
It would be natural to assume that the first performance of the Requiem was the one arranged by the original commissioner (and purported composer), Franz Count von Walsegg, at a Mass in memory of his wife at a church in Wiener Neustadt on 14 December 1793. But in fact (and probably without the count's knowledge), Süssmayr's completion of the Requiem had already been presented in Vienna on 2 January 1793, just over a year after the composer's death. This was at a well-documented benefit concert for Mozart's widow, Constanze, which his great friend and patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, promoted at a hall connected to a prestigious restaurant. Van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart's assimilation of several key works by Bach and Handel during his Viennese years, but he was also responsible for encouraging the composer to arrange several such works, primarily by Handel, for performance with the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere in 1788-90. This society was reconvened for the benefit concert of 1793, so - although we do not have any details of the forces for this specific performance - Mozart's Handel performances of just a few years previously offer a fairly consistent picture of the type and size of the performing group involved. Among other details, the most striking in terms of choral practice today is the fact that the chorus of c.16 singers is led by the four soloists rather than corralled as a separate body of performers. This not only helps to integrate the solo sections with the choral ones (there are several swift changes from one texture to the other, both across movements and sometimes within them); it also gives the choral line a different character, one inflected by soloistic projection. This method of performance was entirely standard in much European choral music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and is well demonstrated in all Dunedin performances of works by Bach and Handel), and Mozart's practice was no different in this respect.
If the two main challenges of this project are to explore the implications of Mozart's likely choral texture, and to try and envisage how the work may have been heard for the very first time, both are made more problematic by the strong possibility that there was an earlier performance of at least part of the Requiem. The fact that there was a Requiem Mass held for Mozart in St Michael's Church on 10 December 1791 (five days after his death) has been well established, but two of the four references to this note that Mozart's 'own Requiem' was performed. While there is an outside chance that all the sketched movements (most of the sequence and the offertory) may have been performed with just the composed vocal parts and a realized organ accompaniment, the most likely sections to have been performed would be the opening introit (entirely finished by Mozart) and the 'Kyrie', which was orchestrated with colla parte instruments by two unknown hands shortly after Mozart's death. We have a relatively clear idea of the forces available at the church: about half the number of strings used in the 1793 premiere and a standard vocal complement of eight singers. Again, the singers would most likely have comprised four of solo capability and four (or slightly more) doubling ripienists, so the basic choral principle would have been the same. Given that there is evidence of at least one other performance with a choir of this small scale during the early years of the work's existence, there is every incentive to imagine what a small-forces version might have sounded like.
The library of St Michael's Church also contains parts for Mozart's early offertory Misericordias Domini, K. 222, recently identified by David Black. These date from around 1791 (there are records to show that a motet by Mozart was copied in May that year) and therefore imply a performance at the church during the last year of Mozart's life, with the same scale of forces as was to be used in the Requiem service. This piece furthermore provides a very interesting companion to the Requiem, given that it is in the same key and is an essay in contrapuntal construction. The short text ('I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever') spawns a piece of almost comical length: not only is virtually every contrapuntal combination of the opening material explored in turn, but Mozart in 'neo-modal' style visits virtually every key centre of the scale (except the awkward phrygian mode of the second degree). This systematic approach to composition is balanced by an overall form that uses sonata principles (the 'second subject' is uncannily similar to the opening of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy') and a dramatized conclusion. At the very least, this fascinating piece gives us an idea of some of the compositional challenges that Mozart relished, particularly those that he would tackle to such effect in his very last work.
Mozart would probably have balked at his swift canonisation and found the issues of the Requiem's authorship rather amusing: composition to him was normally a spontaneous affair, somewhat akin to performance, and impersonation was one of his own specifically musical gifts. Yet through this mercurial, frenetic approach to his profession, Mozart achieved a profundity that is truly startling. Within the necessary sobriety of a church idiom he was able to pack in virtually all the styles and textures he had developed on the opera and concert stage, bringing a dramatic flair to the Requiem text that has been a challenge to all subsequent composers in the genre. The opening movement sees him taking the traditional elements of church music - plainsong cantus firmus and fugue - and imbuing them with a lyricism and momentum that would normally be associated with much more up-to-date genres of music. Mozart's debt to the opening chorus of Handel's funeral anthem The ways of Zion do mourn (which may well have also played a part in the invention of the ‘Song of the Armed Men' from Die Zauberflöte, written at very nearly the same time) seems almost certain. But the transformation is clearly Mozart's own, rendering this opening, with its very human, almost limping gait, one of the most recognizable in western music. It would be easy to imagine that such a combination of 'modern' human elements and traditional church style might render the latter as a sort of parody, but somehow both styles are integrated without either necessarily sounding like the 'home' style.
Mozart's late contrapuntal style is also evident in the 'Kyrie' (again borrowing from Handel, this time from the end of the Dettingen anthem) and 'Quam olim Abrahae' fugues, ones in which we can almost hear the composer's imaginary competition with Bach, as he discovers and deploys as many combinations as possible. Perhaps it is this sense of historical competition that gives these pieces such dramatic energy, a sort of desperation that is a model for anguished music in the classical era. Another particular challenge must have been the sequence, with its long, rambling text. Rather like a keyboard fantasia in its variety of stylistic allusions, Mozart's sequence takes us swiftly from dramatic fantasy, through operatic ensemble, French overture, ritornello vocal 'concerto' , back to fantasy and closing lament (a surviving sketch by Mozart suggests that an Amen fugue may originally have been planned). The musical sequence thus provides a sort of roundedness that the text here tends to lack. Only the 'Tuba mirum' is in a completely open form, ending with no reference to its opening melody, as if it were following the swift psychological progress of an operatic ensemble.
Aspects of sonata style are also a means of providing contrast within cohesion: in the very first movement the 'Te decet hymnus' section, set to the Gregorian tonus peregrinus, provides a contrasting 'second subject'. Yet the circling figuration of the instrumental parts at this point is later integrated into a countersubject for the return of the 'Requiem' theme. Of the various vocal idioms that Mozart had at his disposal, only aria is effectively absent. But aspects of aria style are readily evident in fully choral numbers such as the 'Lacrimosa' and 'Hostias' , and also in the largely convincing 'Benedictus' ensemble, for which there is sadly no evidence of Mozart's direct compositional involvement. In all, absolute originality of musical material is clearly not the essential aspect of Mozart's achievement. Rather it is his stunning ability to combine the diverse idioms and genres of varying ages, in such a way as to generate works that seem ever new and direct. And such directness almost always seems to bring with it the trace of human emotions and movement, as if Mozart could capture the physical and mental essence of people in a way that we can almost recognize.
Mozart's own Requiem Mass in St Michael's Church on 10 December 1791 seems to have been organized partly by the impresario, librettist and actor (and thus Mozart's close collaborator in Die Zauberflöte), Emanuel Schikaneder. The church was specifically associated with the court, its musicians and the operatic community. Both the available lists of
musicians and the parts for the Misericordias point to an ensemble of eight singers, single wind and single lower strings with doubled violins. It may well be that the opera musicians came up with instruments that were not normally available, specifically the two basset horns. The doubling of vocal lines in contrapuntal music by trombones was standard practice, evident in the Misericordias parts, and is particularly effective when there are only two singers per part. While it is likely that trumpets and timpani would have been available for Mozart's fully finished introit, it is not clear whether the parts for these instruments in the ‘Kyrie' were written before 10 December 1791, so they are omitted in the small, ‘church' version of the ‘Kyrie'.
For the 1793 performance of the completed Requiem, the surviving parts of several of Mozart's Handel performances give us a reasonable indication of the numbers involved. These performances had also been promoted by van Swieten with the same society and, indeed, Mozart's version of Acis and Galatea was performed in the same venue as the Requiem, the Jahn-Saal in Vienna. The vocal forces therefore comprise the four soloists plus up to three ripienists and the strings are provided with a relatively generous six violins to a part, with slightly smaller numbers for the lower parts. The sorts of soloist available in the Handel performances were very clearly associated with dramatic performance (for instance, Mozart's sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber, was a regular member of the ensemble), which might suggest that the choruses benefited from a relatively soloistic form of delivery. One particular issue about the venue was the fact that no organ was available in the hall. While the role of a keyboard continuo is less vital here than in earlier church styles, it is unlikely that it would have been missed out entirely. The 1793 performance may well thus have employed a fortepiano for the purpose (a reference survives for the use of a fortepiano in a performance of the Requiem in Stockholm, some ten years later).
This project would not have been possible without the wonderful support of Dr David Black, who gave me early access to his new edition of the Süssmayr version of the Requiem and also to his seminal dissertation on the church-music culture of Mozart's Vienna. He has pointed me in the right direction in numerous ways, particularly in relation to the sources for the size and type of forces. Thanks are also due to David Lee for preparing the performing edition of the Misericordias from the original St Michael's Church parts.
© John Butt, 2014
Recorded at Greyfriar's Kirk, Edinburgh, UK, 15-19 September 2013
Produced and recorded by Philip Hobbs
Assistant engineering by Robert Cammidge
Post-production by Julia Thomas
Design by Gareth Jones (gazjonesdesign)