Mozart’s Requiem

Kathrin Danzmayr, soprano
Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Aaron Wardell, baritone
David Danzmayr, conductor


Tonight’s program features three works that explore the potential of the human voice within an orchestral setting. The “Three Songs for Soprano and String Orchestra” of Osvaldo Golijov, showcasing our own Kathrin Danzmayr, are an emotional tour de force, both for the vocalist and for the orchestra’s strings as well. In the second half, the ProMusica orchestra will be joined by four vocal soloists and our friends of the Lancaster Chorale for a performance of one of the most moving works in the choral repertoire, Mozart’s mysterious and gripping Requiem, a work the thirty-five-year-old composer never lived to complete.

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960): Three Songs for Soprano and String Orchestra
Duration is 23 minutes.

Composer Osvaldo Golijov, the product of an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina, was raised among the eclectic sounds of classical chamber music, Klezmer and liturgical Jewish chant, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. After studying piano and composition at the local conservatory, Golijov furthered his formal musical studies in Israel and then Pennsylvania and Tanglewood, where he worked respectively with avant-garde composers George Crumb and Oliver Knussen. Since then, he has gone on to work intensely with various ensembles and individuals, including the Kronos and St. Lawrence String Quartets, whose recordings championed Golijov’s “volatile and category-defying style.” The songs performed here, each cast in a different language, were not originally composed as a set; Golijov later rearranged them as “Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra.” Yet they make for a convincing group, united as they are by their achingly expressive vocal lines and impressively evocative orchestral settings, as evident, for example, in the alluring and expansive Klezmer-style writing of Night of the Flying Horses and the haunting, agitated rhythmic pulse that underpins How Slow the Wind.

The klezmer-inspired Night of the Flying Horses opens with a Yiddish lullaby Golijov composed for the film The Man Who Cried, which, in the composer’s own words, “explores the fate of Jews and Gypsies in the tragic mid-years of the 20th century, through a love story between a Jewish young woman and a Gypsy young man. The lullaby metamorphoses into a dense and dark doina (a slow, gypsy, rubato genre) featuring the solo viola and “ends in a fast gallop boasting a theme that I stole from my friends of the wild gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. The theme is presented here in a canonical chase between two orchestral groups.”

Lúa descolorida, a hauntingly beautiful lament about the “colorless moon,” is based on a poem by the great Galician poet Rosalia de Castro (1837-1885) and thus reflects the language of her native Spain. Though Golijov would subsequently incorporate the lament into his groundbreaking opera La Pasión Según San Marcos, the original was scored for voice and piano and championed by soprano Dawn Upshaw. As opposed to the outer songs of the set, the orchestra here functions largely in an accompanimental role, laying a static carpet for the soprano’s soaring lines.

Based on two short poems of Emily Dickinson, How Slow the Wind was Golijov’s response to the death of his friend Mariel Stubrin. As with the other songs of the group, this one is carried as much by the stunning vocal writing as the orchestral landscape. As to the score’s inspiration, the composer addressed that himself: “I had in mind one of those seconds in life that is frozen in the memory, forever—a sudden death, a single instant in which life turns upside down, different from the experience of death after a long agony.” Among the many noticeable facets of Golijov’s writing are the variety of his orchestral colors and the emotional potency of his vocal lines. All of this is couched within a tonal fabric that moves in and out of a romantically tonal pallet, drawing a unique and satisfying musical life from Dickinson’s powerful poetry.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Requiem
Scored for 2 basset horns in F, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets in D, 3 trombones (alto, tenor & bass), timpani (2 drums), violins, viola and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and organ). The vocal forces include soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass soloists and an SATB mixed choir. Duration is 55 minutes.

Anyone who has seen Shaffer’s play or Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus is unlikely to forget the drama surrounding Mozart’s Requiem. Of course, Mozart’s downfall, as plotted by his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri, is the stuff of fiction but the truth behind the Requiem is only a little less intriguing. It starts with Count Franz von Walsegg, an aristocrat and musical dilettante who owned a castle in Lower Austria. Walsegg was in the habit of commissioning works by composers and then performing them in his chapel and passing them off as his own. A few years following the death of his wife, the count sent his steward to Mozart in Vienna—hence, the inspiration for the mysterious visitor in the film and play—to commission a requiem in her memory (not unexpectedly, Walsegg had planned to claim the work as his own at the memorial service). Mozart accepted the offer and sketched some 40 pages before setting it aside to work on his operas La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute. Before his death, he returned to the Requiem, but managed only to sketch out the vocal and bass parts (that is, the principal themes and accompanying bass line), along with a few orchestral hints, among them the trombone solo that opens the Tuba mirum.

Several others, then, literally had their hands in the work, as is evident by the handwriting styles found on the autographs. Mozart’s student, Jacob Freystädtler, and composer-colleague Franz Xaver Süssmayr, filled in some of the details early on, including the string doubling of the vocal lines and the completion of the trumpet and timpani parts. After Mozart’s death, his wife Constanze, fearing that the entire commission might be lost, sought additional help to see the Requiem through to completion. Maximilian Stadler and Joseph Eybler both took steps to this end but Constanze waivered, and she ultimately placed the score once more in Süssmayr’s hands. 100 days after her husband’s death, Süssmayr returned it to her, complete.

A conductor and respected composer in his own right, Süssmayr was, most importantly, intimately familiar with both Mozart and his music. He had not only served as copyist for Mozart’s final operas but is believed to have composed a number of recitatives for La Clemenza di Tito. And according to Süssmayr, he had “often played and sung the completed parts through with Mozart, who had very often discussed with him the completion of the work and the course of his instrumentation with his reasons.” No doubt Süssmayr’s greatest and most critical challenge was composing movements that were altogether absent from Mozart’s drafts. While elsewhere he was able to draw on the prior work of Stadler and Eybler, the Sanctus, Benedictus and the Agnus Dei were, as Süssmayr openly declared out of respect and honor of his revered master, entirely of his own doing. As for the return of the final fugue, Süssmayr held that this idea was his own, although Constanze told the publishers that that had been Mozart’s plan all along.

In sum, we can consider those movements up through the Hostias (the 3rd portion of the Offertorium) to be by Mozart, if not entirely scored by him. Listening to this music today, we have no doubt that much of Süssmayr’s contribution, while hardly unattractive, lacks the lofty spark of inspiration that seemed to flow so effortlessly from Mozart’s pen and that distinguishes his work from a host of lesser composers. One need only consider the terrifying orchestral writing near the start of the Introit and the miraculous vocal writing that follows, or the intense drama of the Dies Irae, so reminiscent of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, to appreciate the extent to which the proverbial deck was stacked against Süssmayr (or anyone attempting to finish what Mozart had begun); how, indeed, could any mortal endeavor to keep pace with a genius of the highest musical order? Sensing Süssmayr’s occasional wooden and perfunctory writing, others have attempted their own solutions, and to be sure, some are impressive; listen, for example, to the version by Robert Levin, available on YouTube. Still, Süssmayr’s remains the most often performed and for good reason, for he gathered up Mozart’s threads in timely fashion and wove them into a largely satisfying tapestry. In particular, his Agnus provides a convincing conclusion to this magnificent and moving work.

In the end, while we may lament that Mozart did not live to complete his swansong, there remains something rather intriguing about the Requiem ultimately being the product of several composers, characters who revered Mozart’s work at a time when many failed to recognize his genius, and who were honored to provide what they could to ensure one of his last works not be abandoned.

© Marc Moskovitz