Cliff Eisen | Mozart Requiem Realisations with King’s College Choir

- 1 July 2013

A young, impoverished composer receives a mysterious commission for a requiem mass, issued by a sinister caller; the composer struggles with a work that increasingly seems to forecast his own demise; he dies with the work unfinished.

That version of Mozart’s last days has persisted across generations, embellishing the popular appeal of the Requiem he left incomplete. Cliff Eisen, professor of music at King’s College, London, employs 45 years of studying Mozart and his world to dispel such fantasies.

‘There isn’t really that much of a mystery,’ he says. ‘We know Mozart got a commission and we know ultimately who it came from, we know he was working on La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute, we know he had a cold but nothing more serious than that, and that he put off work on the Requiem until The Magic Flute was finished, and then he died.’

The not-so-mysterious patron was Count von Walsegg, seeking to memorialise his wife who had died at the age of 30; the commission was probably arranged through the count’s lawyer, Johann Sortschan; and the visitor was probably Sortschan’s agent, Anton Leitgeb, a near-neighbour of Mozart.

Eisen is able to sweep away that mythology in an ‘audio documentary’ that accompanied Mozart Requiem Realisations, the recent second release from the in-house label of the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Conductor Stephen Cleobury decided to accompany the Süssmayr completion of the Requiem with examples from five other attempts to convey Mozart’s intentions, from Maunder’s honing back of the work to the master’s hand only to Michael Finnissy’s suggestion of what Mozart might have written had he been a contemporary of Schönberg.

Eisen’s contribution is 66 minutes of spoken text and musical examples that attempt to separate fact from fiction.

But he says the romantic accretions to the Requiem have extended beyond the Requiem to much of Mozart’s life and works. Much of it is, he says, is generated by the arrogance of hindsight.

‘There is this growing body of opinion and theories about Mozart’s demise, and once you start thinking about that, you start thinking about his childhood and how his father dragged him around Europe and weakened his constitution, and Salieri had it in for him, and the Viennese public being fickle, and so on. All of these biographical ideas contribute to the idea of Mozart as innocent victim and the Requiem becomes a cornerstone in building this biographical narrative.’

Bonus material: Eisen’s documentary features in King’s College Choir’s Mozart Requiem Realisations

The tendency for biographers to elevate Mozart to god-like status led on to the idea that Süssmayr must be a nonentity and therefore his work on the Requiem must be inferior. ‘That is a Mozart-centric approach that I do not always find justifiable.’

Eisen is seizing more opportunities to set the record straight. An iBook (the iPad answer to e-books) titled simply Mozart, is due out on iTunes in July, he is editing Mozart’s letters for Cambridge University Press and Yale University has commissioned a print biography which will be several more years in the writing.

Another myth Eisen assails is that the Requiem was an unsual commission to be sent by a stranger to a shamefully neglected composer. ‘In 1791 Mozart was internationally famous. Shortly after he died, Constanze reported that he had commissions from a group of noblemen in Hungary and a group in the Netherlands.

‘About 10 years ago I found some letter about a group of people who wanted to get him to set a play. They wrote to him, but he never wrote back. So there is earlier evidence of Mozart getting commissions to write large-scale pieces of music.’

Records also counter the picture of Mozart’s prodigious talents ruthlessly exploited by an overbearing father. ‘Leopold Mozart had a very clear idea he wanted to education his son about the world.’ The Grand Tour was primarily musical but Leopold had very clear ideas he wanted to educate his son about then world. The combination of philosophy, modernity and religion in 18th-century terms said that the more you learned about people the better you understood about God’s creation. It is a concept we are not used to.’

Records of the Grand Tour show Leopold passing on to his son his interest science and his wide reading.

Wolfgang adopted these interests, Eisen says, and was not the shallow buffoon with scatological obsessions suggested in some letters. ‘The trouble is that people don’t read all the letters. If you do read them in context you find an accomplished father with a child he tries to educate as best as possible.’

On a less lurid level, Eisen addresses what makes Mozart’s music distinctive. While many of his themes echo ‒ consciously or otherwise ‒ those of his contemporaries, ‘what really counts in this music is not the motif itself but what Mozart does with it. What people really appreciate in Mozart’s music is the multiplicity of ideas and his working out of them.’

While Haydn’s music stands out because of its structural qualities, ‘Mozart’s tendency is to overwhelm you with beauty or sound or dramatic changes ‒ that’s what makes him fundamentally different to Haydn.’

Which brings one back to Eisen’s regard for the Requiem: ‘I think it’s far and away the best piece of music ever written.’

Further details here on the choir’s website.

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