Requiem Mass in D Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wow! I managed to go five whole days before talking about Mozart. That’s quite an accomplishment. What is there to say about good ole Wolfy? I love him. He’s the bees knees.

Today I will be talking about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterpiece, Requiem Mass in D minor. The video above is the opening, or Introit, to the Mass. Like the Palestrina piece we talked about last week, the movements are dictated by the Catholic mass. Int his instance, though, because it is a Requiem Mass, only some of the pieces from the regular mass are included. These are the Kyrie, the Sanctus et Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. The rest of the music is written for a specific occasion- in this case, usually a funeral.

Before we go into too much detail about the Requiem Mass, let’s talk a little about Mozart. I think most scholars would agree that Mozart is NOT the greatest composer of all time. He takes a back seat the greats like Bach and Stravinsky. However, Mozart is epitome of the true Classical composer. His music sounds deceptively simple, staying very tonal and adhering strongly to Classical forms. (Musical form is the structure of a piece of music. Most music we listen to these days is in strophic form. This means there are verses where the music is the same but the words change. We will talk more about form later on, probably for Beethoven.)

Mozart was an expert at musical structure. Classical forms were all about introducing a theme, taking the listener on a journey as far away from that theme as possible, and then finding an unexpected way to bring us back. Sounds easy, right? Well yeah, actually, it kind of is. Writing a basic Classical piece is not that difficult, but it won’t sound like Mozart, the master of invention and creativity.

You see, unlike other amazing composers like Beethoven, Handel, or Wagner, Mozart wrote his works entirely in his head. He didn’t compose so much as he simply acted as a channel. A channel to what, you ask? I have no idea. He was what is known as a prodigy (a person who had an inexplicable ability to hear, understand, mimic, and create music). The firs drafts of his scores (written musical works) were perfectly realized, no scratched out notes, no edits or mistakes.

Unfortunately, this amazing ability makes it darn hard to understand Mozart’s process. We can trace the evolution of Beethoven’s music from draft one to two, two to three, etc, and we can see some his greatest achievements came from a decision to scratch out one note and replace it with another. Well, because Mozart composed entirely in his head, we can’t trace his process. And let me tell you, as a musician, that’s maddening! (IE- Antonio Salieri in the film Amadeus.)

amadeus

Pictured above: The Plot of Amadeus

Despite the difficulty his music presents to scholars and music theorists, Mozart is, for singers, a pleasure to perform. From what I understand, most instrumentalists agree. After all, Mozart was kind of a drama queen; he loved to be the center of attention and lived to put on a good show. So he wrote stuff that would make the performer, and by extension, his music, sound good. He was a genius when it came to a singer’s falk (fancy word for comfortable and optimal singing range). All right- have I gushed enough? Can you tell I love Mozart? Really, all you need to know is that Mozart’s music is simple, elegant, beautiful, and seemingly effortless.

My own personal experience with Mozart began with the San Diego Symphony’s performance of the Requiem Mass when I was 15. So that’s where we’re going to start. First and most importantly, Amadeus is a work of historical fiction. Many of the moments from the movie are based on fact, but most of the darker elements of the film are dramatized or made up entirely. Part of the problem, of course, is that Mozart died in the middle of composing the Requiem, so it is hard to know exactly what his intentions were with the piece. It is largely believed that he was composing the piece for his own funeral. This wide-held belief can be traced back to Constanze Mozart. Needing to stir up some gossip and spark interest, she claimed that her husband had been poisoned, that the work was largely complete before his demise, and that Death himself (according to her husband) had commissioned the work from him. There may be some spark of truth to this, however, as Mozart did not, in fact, ever meet the patron who commissioned the work, and being in poor health, may have been suffering from delusions.

So, how much of Mozart’s Requiem was actually written by Mozart? It’s hard to tell, especially with Constanze Mozart clouding the historical facts with her claims. We do know that the first movement, the Introit, and the second movement, Kyrie, were pretty much all Mozart, as they was written in his hand. It gets a little foggy after that, though there is evidence that he composed a large portion of the Confutatis and the Lacrimosa and left detailed notes for these and some other movements. When listening to Mozart’s Requiem, it is important to remember that about 50% of it composed posthumously by colleagues and students.

This is the Confutatis Maledictis. Considering this is one of the last things Mozart ever wrote (or outlined), it is so important that we get as much meat from it as we can. For instance, listen to those strings in the opening of this piece! The rhythm of the male chorus and the rhythm of the strings grate against each other, creating a feeling of agitation, anger. Then the stark contrast of the female chorus acts as a voice from Heaven itself. Indeed, they sing, “Voca me cum benedictis” or “Call me with the blessed”.  As the flames of hell engulf the sinners, a sweet angelic prayer sounds against the silence, calls to God, in hopes of being among the lucky blessed believers who will go to heaven.

The music that fanned the flames of my already burgeoning love affair with classical music was the Lacrimosa Dies Illa, of which Mozart wrote about nine measures. But what glorious nine measures they are!

Nine measures translates to about the first minute or so, before the whole choir enters. The words to this movement are roughly translated to:

Tearful will be that day,
on which from the ash arises
the guilty man who is to be judged.
Spare him therefore, God

I honestly don’t even know what to say about this music. It is as beautiful as it is haunting. While the film Amadeus may have stretched the truth a great deal, there are some moments, which are painfully true to historical fact. For instance, in the following clip, you will see the kind of funeral a beloved composer gets when he has far less money than talent. There is so much that we will never know about Mozart, and this is part of the reason why. Here is Lacrimosa Dies Illa from Amadeus.

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini

Even if you have never heard a single opera in your life, chances are that you know a few licks from Barber of Seville. In fact, when you think of opera and opera singers, you may hear something like this in your head: “Figaro Figaro Figaro FIGARO!” While some mistakenly think that this is from Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, it is actually the aria (opera song) “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

 

 

Wait, now I am confused! Who the heck is this Figaro guy, and why is he trying to confuse me by being in so many darn operas? Well, that’s because Figaro is the hero in a famous set of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. These plays were all the rage, and they caused some rage in the upper classes too. The poor people liked them because they were all about the common man outsmarting the aristocracy, and the rich people hated them because the plays made them look like buffoons.

In 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed one of his greatest masterpieces, The Marriage of Figaro. This opera was actually based on the SECOND Beaumarchais play. Thirty years later, in 1816, the Barber of Seville, based on the FIRST play, premiered. If this is confusing to you, don’t worry- it’s confusing for us too. Luckily, they work pretty well as separate units. It is very easy to enjoy Marriage of Figaro even if you have not seen Barber of Seville, but since this post is about Barber of Seville, it is a moot point.

Anyway, when listening to or seeing an opera, the most important thing is the plot. In this particular opera, the plot is pretty simple. Count Almaviva has become infatuated with a beautiful (and wealthy) young woman named Rosina. She has not yet come of age, so she lives with a grumpy old man named Bartolo as his ward. Bartolo plans to marry Rosina himself and collect on her hefty dowry once she comes of age. This basically means that poor Rosina is a prisoner, and she cannot even speak to poor Count Almaviva. Enter Figaro the Barber. He has a plan, and it’s a good one. After all, every man, no matter how rich, at some point needs a good shave and a haircut (two bits).

Figaro uses his position of power (notice the theme of the common man having more power than the rich man) to gain entrance into the house of Bartolo and deliver love letters back and forth between Rosina and Count Almaviva. Eventually, Almaviva and Rosina finally meet when he disguises himself as a music tutor. Right in front of Bartolo’s nose, they profess their love through song, and while it is good sport for the two young lovers, Bartolo is not a complete idiot. He immediately rushes to the nearest notary to have a marriage contract written up. Luckily, after some hijinks, Almaviva and Figaro manage to use the marriage contract for themselves. Almaviva and Rosina are married, and Bartolo is given her dowry.

Okay, so maybe the plot is not as simple as I said it was. However, for an OPERA plot, this one is positively comprehensible. These days, it might be comparable to something like Oceans 11- convoluted but ultimately full of fluff and requiring very little actual brain power.

So, what makes Barber of Seville so special? First of all, the music is just about impossible to sing. Largo al Factotum is by far one of the easier pieces in the opera. The role of Rosina  is written for a lower female voice, but she is also expected to hit notes up in the rafters (window rattling notes). Count Almaviva has A LOT of notes. He is expected to sing long, virtuosic (freaking difficult) lines of melisma. Most Almavivas look like this by the end of the opera:

Out of Breath

All of that aside, I think what makes this opera truly great is its ability to speak to those who have never heard opera. It’s downright enjoyable to watch and listen to. Somehow it manages to cross over from music people to “normal” people. After all, people KNOW the “Figaro Figaro!” song even if they are not sure why. The Barber of Seville has become culturally embedded in our collective subconscious. For instance, do you recognize this delightful bit from the opera?

 

 

That’s right! This is the famous overture (opening) to Barber of Seville, made famous by Loony Tunes!

 

 

I must admit that every time I hear the overture to Barber of Seville, I snicker a little as I imagine Bugs tossing a delicious fruit salad on top of Elmer Fudd’s bald, bulbous head.