While working on The Magic Flute, Mozart received a commission from a stranger to compose a requiem, but under conditions of secrecy.
Count von Walsegg wanted a requiem for his wife, to be played every year on her anniversary – and some have suggested he might have wanted to pass it off as his own work.
With the encouragement of his own wife, Mozart accepted the challenge, and was paid a part-fee, with the rest to follow on completion. The deadline, according to one report, was four weeks. But Mozart had to go to Prague to conduct Tito – and the deadline continued to hang over him.
Mozart starts work, concentratedly, on 8 October 1791.
On 20 November, he takes to his bed with a worsening of the spells of ill health he had suffered during the last year. On 3 December, his condition appears to improve – and the next day a few close friends gather to sing over with him part of the still-unfinished Requiem.
That evening, Mozart’s illness worsens, and just before 1am on 5 December, he dies, aged 35 with an initial cause of death registered as ‘severe military fever’.
At Mozart’s death, only the Introitus of the Requiem is fully scored. All the other movements, from the Kyrie fugue to the end of the Hostias, are only sketched. Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who has written the recitatives for La clemenza di Tito, completes much of the Requiem.
The presence of an incomplete Requiem as Mozart’s very last work delights scholars, commentators, playwrights and novelists to the present day. Again, the temptation to fuse life and work must be resisted: Mozart’s last commission just happens to be for a requiem, after all.
But on the day he died, Mozart himself declares: ‘Didn’t I say before that I was writing this Requiem for myself?’ And, according to one eyewitness account, ‘his last movement was an attempt to express with his mouth the drum passages in the Requiem.’
On hearing of Mozart’s death, Haydn says: ‘Posterity will not see such a talent again in a hundred years!’ And, as the American musicologist HC Robbins Landon later added, ‘Posterity has not seen it in two hundred.’
This article was originally published in The Complete Mozart, 2013.