This weekend, we were supposed to perform the great Mozart Requiem in partnership with the Chamber Singers of Iowa City. I was so looking forward to this performance as this piece remains to this day one of my all-time favorite works. Sadly, fate had other ideas, and the pandemic we are all experiencing has put a pause on all our activities for the foreseeable future.
When one listens to a recording for the very first time it leaves an indelible imprint on the imagination. When I approach a score to a Beethoven symphony, for example, I cannot help but recall my childhood recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Despite all my schooling, and the hopefully independent approach I have developed over the years in my artistic approach, I nevertheless find those classic recordings whispering and reverberating in my ears when I attempt to put my own personal stamp in the music-making process.
Such is the same when it comes to the Mozart Requiem. I first became aware of the piece in the immediate aftermath of the Oscar-award-winning film Amadeus where excerpts of the work were featured prominently throughout the movie. The year was 1984 and I was only 16 years old. As an enterprising and curious young musician, I found the first recording I could find, and unbeknownst to me, I stumbled across a very unusual performance captured on the ancient technology known dismissively today as vinyl—it featured Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, performing Richard Maunder’s realization of the Mozart Requiem. After all these years, this recording has stuck with me and I can’t get it out of my thoughts when I study this work.
In the 1980’s, authentic performance practice was still in its infancy and as a 16-year-old, I had no idea what it meant. These were the heady early days of ensembles experimenting with historical instruments, bows and techniques that had heretofore been overlooked, discarded and forgotten over the years during the steady march of modern improvements to acoustic instrument design. Today, no longer a fringe movement, authentic performance practice is very much in the mainstream when it comes to interpreting music especially written during the baroque and classical periods. As an aside, I am a HUGE fan of the work of John Eliot Gardiner who in my view is THE leading proponent of this approach to music making… but I digress… back to the Mozart Requiem.
As a 16-year-old, I had NO idea of the difficulties the Mozart Requiem presented to performers. I just thought, it was a work written by the great legend. Just play the notes and… presto, you’ve realized his vision. I didn’t realize that Mozart died before he completed the piece. As it turns out, Mozart’s contemporary, Franz Süssmayr, ultimately completed the work and by many accounts sort of botched the job. Fortunately/unfortunately, this is the version that most people perform today, because it’s historically the most contemporaneous to Mozart’s period and all the available scores in the public domain are reprints of this completion—to be blunt, it’s the cheapest to perform without having to pay royalties or rental fees. Starting in the 1980’s with the ascension of the authentic performance practice movement, many musicologists decided to attempt their own reconstruction and completion of the Requiem score, hoping to replace Franz Süssmayr’s efforts with their own and (hopefully) better realizations.
Enter Richard Maunder stage right. To my knowledge, he was the first of many who came forward to re-compose the missing sections of the Mozart Requiem left inconveniently vacant after the composers untimely death—Robert Levin is another who comes to mind, and I assume there are many others who have put their skills and aspirations to this test. Arrogant? Presumptuous? Maybe, but it’s an interesting exercise in exploring what could have been if Mozart lived through the works completion, or if someone better skilled than Süssmayr was commissioned to fulfill Mozart’s last wishes. So here I am, how many years later still enamored with my very first recorded experience of the Mozart requiem—a rather odd-ball, off-the-beaten-track recording of Richard Maunder’s realization of the Mozart Requiem performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.
You should check it out—I think it’s worth a listen.
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