≈ 1h45 · With intermission
Last updated: November 9, 2022
MOZART Symphony No. 39, K. 543
MOZART Requiem, K. 626
Tonight’s NACO program pairs two distinguished works by Mozart—Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, which became his third-last in that genre, and his Requiem, which he was working on but had left incomplete at his death in 1791. In presenting them together in this concert, these powerful pieces clearly show the composer’s inventiveness and deft skill in writing for the orchestral medium, and why he was considered, during his lifetime and afterwards, to be the late 18th century’s preeminent master of orchestration. They also raise tantalizing questions about what Mozart might have created if he had lived longer than his 35 years.
Few works in the Western classical music repertory captivate and fascinate as much as Mozart’s Requiem. It was left unfinished upon the composer's death on December 5, 1791, and since then, music scholars, performers, composers, and audiences have been drawn to the surrounding mystique of its creation, to consider “what would Mozart have done” if he had survived it, and of course, to the power of the music itself, which has undergone various completions, at least six in the past 50 years. Tonight, you’re hearing a widely performed modern completion from 1994 by American composer, musicologist, and pianist Robert D. Levin.
Music scholars, such as Simon O’Keefe in his incisive study of Mozart’s Requiem in context, have pointed out the difficulty, even impossibility, nowadays to separate the facts from the layers of fiction and quasi-fiction that have accrued over time concerning the Requiem “legend”. What we do know for a fact is that it was commissioned anonymously by Franz, Count von Walsegg (1763–1827), likely in the summer of 1791, in memory of his wife who had died earlier that year on February 14, at age 20. Either Walsegg’s lawyer, Dr. Johann Sortschan, or his business manager, Franz Anton Leitgeb, had facilitated the transaction. Mozart likely worked on the Requiem between September and November, though sporadically, for he was busy with the premieres and performances of La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, other compositional projects, and visits to his family in Baden. It’s unclear whether he continued to work on it after November 20, when he became bedridden with his final illness.
Mozart’s Requiem follows the standard liturgical format of Introit, Kyrie, a Sequence with six sections, the Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communio. At his death, Mozart had finished the full score for the Introit, and had written the vocal parts, continuo, and several orchestral passages for the Kyrie, the Sequence (up to the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa), and the Offertorium. Keen to see the commission fulfilled, Mozart’s widow Constanze enlisted the services of, first, Joseph Eybler (1765–1846), then Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766–1803), both Austrian composers and associates of her husband. When the completed score was given to Walsegg, the manuscript included the Introit and Kyrie by Mozart, instrumental additions to the Kyrie in an unknown hand, the Sequence and Offertorium in Süssmayr’s hand but integrating Mozart’s work and part of Eybler’s orchestration, and the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei by Süssmayr, with part of Mozart’s Introit and Kyrie reprised for the Communio. It received several early performances, including one as a benefit for Constanze and her children, before it was published in 1800.
In his modern version, Levin sought to maintain as much as possible the autograph score with Mozart’s work and Süssmayr’s completion, while improving on the latter; as he’s noted, “The goal was to revise not as much, but as little as possible, attempting in the revision to observe character, texture, voice leading, continuity and structure of Mozart’s music. The traditional version has been retained insofar as it agrees with idiomatic Mozartean practice.” Among Levin’s own contributions is an elaborate fugue on the final “Amen” of the Lacrimosa, thus providing a climatic end to the Sequence. (It’s not certain whether Mozart would have written a fugue there but perhaps Levin took a chance based on the 1962 discovery of a sketch by Mozart for an “Amen” fugue.) He also lengthened Süssmayr’s fugue on “Osanna” to give the Benedictus a grand, triumphant ending.
An effective completion of Mozart’s Requiem should uphold what is already evidently compelling about it—that is, the composer’s sensitive and judicious use of the orchestra’s instruments and their distinct timbres to create sounds for dramatic effect. Throughout the work, the orchestra serves not only to support the choir and vocal soloists but is an active contributor to the content and meaning of the text being sung. At times, the orchestra enhances through text painting, but on other occasions, it destabilizes meaning through unexpected contrasts in dynamic levels, harmonic modulations, melodic character, and rhythmic energy. Although drawing inspiration from earlier requiem settings, Mozart’s Requiem thus seems to have a special intensity owing to the dialectical relationship between the voices and the orchestra, resulting, as O’Keefe has observed, in its somewhat unsettling quality overall. It perhaps raises more questions than offers answers, about life, death, and the afterlife. And in contemplating the state of this Requiem’s (in)completeness, we are forced to face this ambiguity head on—therein lies the remarkable power of the piece and its “legend”.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009–2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive, and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.