Monday, November 26, 2012

How did Mozart "Handel" Messiah ? The backstory of Der Messias

This essay was written for the December 7th performance of Wolfgang Mozart's 
Der Messias (KV 572), his 1789 transcription of Handel's Messiah, at Christ and St Stephen's Church, NYC. Opera Company of Brooklyn and a splendid cast of conservatory-trained soloists and chorus will be conducted by maestro Jay Meetze.

"Mozart knew how to give new life to Handel’s noble inspirations by means of the warmth of his own feeling, and through the magic of his own instrumental style to make them enjoyable for our age."                                      
                     F.X. Nemetschek, Mozart's first biographer, 1808

                                                  George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
                                                          by Balthasar Denner (c. 1728)

    Transcriptions of musical compositions, especially famous ones, are a mixed bag.  As accomplished a pair of pianists as you and your friend might be, it should still be evident as you play the four-hand piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s Eroica  and Schubert’s Unfinished symphonies, that they are nowhere near as moving as the composers’ original orchestrations. In contrast, Ravel’s magisterial symphonic reworking of Mussorgsky’s initial piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a work of art far richer and textured than the original, and much more popular as well. Then there is another type of transcription, an adaptation and "renovation" really, that was the result of Wolfgang Mozart’s genius, the marvelous result of a commission he received to re-orchestrate a German text setting of Handel’s sublime and iconic Messiah.

    The well-worn story of Handel’s life and the composition of his oratorio Messiah (HWV 56) are part of the fabric and lore of music history. Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in that magical year of 1685, which also witnessed the birth of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Handel did his "Grand Tour" in Italy,  from 1706 to 1710, during which time he was informed by the operatic and oratorio styles prevalent there and also tried his hand at them, to great effect. These works were immediately applauded by his Italian patrons, especially Prince Ruspoli, who bestowed upon him the monicker, "il caro Sassone," "the beloved Saxon." He then returned to Germany to work for George, the Elector of Hanover, who later became that George, King George I of England. Handel firmly settled in London in 1712, preceding his Hanoverian employer by two years; the King was miffed for a while, but after Handel presented him with the Music for The Royal Fireworks in 1717, they worked it out. Handel eventually obtained English citizenship in 1727, and never looked back.

Handel and King George I on the Thames
 putatively  on  7/17/1717
Edouard Conrad  Hamman (1819-1888)

    Although Handel had composed a few oratorios in his early years in England, he initially made his name there by composing operas, the most successful of which were scored with Italian libretti. Handel did not start seriously composing oratorios until the 1730s. By that time, the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for opera seria, which he more than any other composer had made famous, had faded. Recognizing that his operatic meal ticket was gone, Handel seamlessly switched gears and restarted composing oratorios, twenty-seven in all, virtually all of which were set to English texts.

Charles Jennens (1700-1773)
The librettist of Messiah
    In July of 1741, the librettist Charles Jennens (who had previously given Handel the text for Saul)  offered Handel a set of passages from the King James Bible as possible material for a new oratorio. The selections were from both the Old Testament (Isaiah, Malachi and Psalms), as well as from two of the canonical gospels of the New Testament, Matthew and Luke, the book of Revelation, and the epistles of Paul. This material seemed to have resonated with Handel, as he began to compose Messiah on August 22 of that year and completed it in just 24 days. He signed the autograph “Solo Deo Gloria” (“Only to God goes the Glory”), prompting  more than a few commentators to suggest that Handel had felt he had received some form of divine inspiration, given the rapidity of its composition and the beauty of its form. 
The  Music Hall
on Fishamble Street, Dublin
The venue of the premiere of Messiah
April 13,1742

    Messiah (HWV 56) had its premiere not in London, where Handel’s many operas and prior oratorios had debuted, but in Dublin, at the then new Music Hall on Fishamble Street, on April 13, 1742,  to 700 attendees, and to the consternation of a great many back in England.  Certainly, Jennens was chagrined, commenting to a friend that “it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it." It seemed to have been a big hit in Dublin, though, as  Handel biographer Donald Burrows relates that "so that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses." (ref.1)

   Messiah was indeed an unqualified success. A critic at the opening wrote that "words are wanting to express the exquisite delight that it (Messiah) afforded the crowded and admiring audience. The Sublime, the Grand, the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished ear."

Handel in rare repose, in 1740  (age 55)
by Phillip Mercier
     There is another story, an essential part of Messiah lore, that goes that when King George II first heard the work, in London in 1743, he was so taken by its now famous "Hallelujah" Chorus, that he stood up during it, setting a precedent that is still adhered to by audiences worldwide. Indeed, the work continued to gain in popularity. In the 1750, Handel performed it at the London Foundling Hospital, and that began its annual performance their for decades, and he subsequently the autograph copy of the work to the institution.
Handel in 1741, at age 56, the year of Messiah
From the frontispiece of the first biography,
 by John Mainwaring (1760)
    In the years following his move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, Mozart developed a fascination for Baroque music, especially the compositions of J.S. Bach and Handel.  Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Mozart's and later, Beethoven's, friend and patron and a wealthy diplomat and amateur musician,  had encouraged  Mozart to study  the manuscript copies  of these Baroque masters which he had archived in his personal library. von Swieten  had been arranging regular private  performances of Baroque music  the private residences  of his aristocratic Viennese colleagues, eventually asking Mozart to curate and direct these events. The Baron had earlier founded the Geselschafft der Associerten (The Society of Associates), an exclusive club that offered oratorios at Lenten and Easter. By the time van Swieten offered a copy of Messiah and a German text to Mozart in 1789, he (Mozart) had already transcribed Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and would go on in the following year to transcribe Handel’s Ode to St Cecilia and Alexander’s Feast.
Wolfgang Mozart at age 33
The unfinished 1789 enlargement of  the
original 1782 oil by his brother-in law, Joseph Lange

    Mozart set his transcription of Messiah, entitled Der Messias (KV 572), to a 1775 German translation of the oratorio by Christoph Daniel Ebeling, which Ebeling had in turn adapted from an earlier  eponymous epic poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. 

  The premiere of Der Messias was presented on March 6th, 1789, appropriately within the magnificent baroque splendor of the Palffy Palace in Vienna, the residence of Count Johann Baptist  Esterházy von Galántha, with Mozart himself conducting. Esterházy was a royal chamberlain and court councillor, himself a prominent patron of music, and a member of the Masonic lodge Zur Neugekrönten Hoffnung ("New Crowned Hope"), which Mozart had joined in 1785, after his own lodge consolidated with that of the Count.

  Der Messias is neither a radical rethinking of Handel’s original work, nor a cavalier rescoring by Mozart done simply as a lark. Although only 48 years separated Messiah’s premiere and Mozart’s 1789 transcription, an enormous change had occurred in musical style.  Handel lived and wrote squarely within the idiom and constraints of the Baroque era, whereas Mozart composed in the conventions of Classical Style. By Mozart’s time, symphonic orchestras were populated by many different instruments, each lending its own tonal color, together giving a more textured sound than that of the  simpler “symphonic bands” of strings and continuo, with occasional trumpets, of Handel’s time. In addition, Mozart lived in the Age of the Enlightenment, when diversity of ideas was being accepted.
  One of the many aspects of Messiah that is emblematic of Handel's genius is that he purposely wrote a relatively spare orchestral part to the work, correctly foreseeing that future composers would tinker with the orchestration, adding instrumental forces here and tonal color there. In fact, Handel himself tinkered with Messiah throughout the rest of his life, and thus there is no accepted Urtext of the oratorio. And so, it was upon this splendid musical palimpsest that Mozart went to work.
Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Mozart's friend and patron
and a prominent Handelian in Vienna
    According to musicologist Teresa Frick, "... Baron van Swieten wanted Mozart to "modernize" the oratorio (Messiah). This was a perfectly normal demand - the original work and its composer still commanded great respect, of course, but this was no obstacle to updating something "old-fashioned" to bring it into line with modern taste. Mozart based his arrangement on the first edition of Handel’s score. From this, two copyists produced a working score. For the English libretto and the wind sections of the original, they substituted blank lines so that Mozart could write his own accompaniment and insert the text written by van Swieten.  which was based on the German translation done by  Klopstock and Ebeling. " (ref 2)
  A contemporary critic, Johann Friedrich Rochlitz, reviewing Der Messias, said of Mozart that "He has exercised the greatest delicacy by touching nothing that transcends the style of his time ... The choral sections are left as Handel wrote them and are only amplified cautiously now and again by wind instruments." (ref.3)  Indeed, Mozart introduced a significant amount of essential wind music to the score, adding parts for clarinets, horns, flutes, oboes and bassoons, which did not appear in Handel’s original work. The clarinet had only been invented in Handel’s time, by J.C. Denner in Nuremberg around 1703, as an improvement over the chalumeau pipe, and it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century, in Mozart’s era, that composers were seriously writing for the instrument. The bassoons are freed, in Mozart's adaptation, from the confines of their traditional buffo and basso roles of simple accompaniment. In Der Messias, they are given elegant, melodic obbligato filigrees in a number of arias.

   At the same time, Mozart minimized the role of the trumpets in his arrangement, giving more of that responsibility to the horns and trombones, especially in the doubling and support of the SATB soloists. The reason was sheer practicality. By Mozart's time, the rare skill of  playing the high tessitura celebratory trumpet was long gone.  In the well-known aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” Mozart wrote the obbligato part not for a natural valveless trumpet, as Handel had done, but for french horn !

    Although Mozart left the orchestration of most of the choral sections as Handel had scored them, he did take some sections from the chorus and gave them to the SATB soloists, likely as a function of the number and talent of the forces he had at the time. It is interesting to note that whereas Handel likely employed  about thirty choristers for the Dublin Messiah, Mozart had only 12 singers in his Der Messias chorus. Also, as there was no organ  at Count Esterházy's palace, Mozart  simply left Handel's  organ part out of his transcription ! Eminent practicality.

              A page from the autograph score of Handel's
 Messiah in the British Library 
Note the composer's numerous inkblots and scratch-outs

   Mozart certainly had his own ideas in arranging Messiah. Mozart felt that Handel's construction of certain arias was lacking in variety, so he sensitively changed their tempi and harmonic structure.  And in one instance,  Mozart converted the somewhat dry soprano aria,  "If God be for us," to a recitative. Evidently, van Swieten was pleased about this as he commented  to Mozart that, "Your idea of turning the text of the cold air (aria) into a recitative is splendid... Anyone who is able to clothe Handel with such solemnity and taste that he pleases the fashion-conscious fops on the one hand, while on the other hand still continues to show himself superior, is a person who senses Handel’s worth, who understands him, who has found the source of his expression and who can and will draw inspiration from it." (ref 4)

    Mozart added woodwind support to several of the solo lines, for example, to the exquisite "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,"  and "Comfort ye." Mozart maintained the bel canto style in these arias (a genre in which Handel was so successful in his many operas)  while adding his own own brilliance as a painter of tonal and  atmospheric color. A convincing exemplar of this is in the Part Three duet,  "O death, where is thy sting?", where Mozart added obbligato violas to the orchestration, prefiguring some of the sonorities in  the Recordare movement of his Requiem of 1791. 

    Mozart eliminated one of the choral numbers, "Let all the angels of God," as well as the aria, "Thou art gone up on high."  He took that most famous aria, "Rejoice greatly," from the soprano and gave it to the tenor. All of these Mozartean changes served not only to tighten up and dramatize the oratorio, it also made the work over a half hour shorter, which may have mattered in what had become a progressive and busy Viennese society.

The sublime 1974 Sir Charles Mackerras essaying
of Der Messias, reissued on CD in 1990
Edith Mathis, Peter Schreir, Theo Adam, Birgit Finnila
   Upon first listening, Der Messias serves up so many new vistas, and not just in   the new orchestration; these insights  also pertain to the German text. Perhaps "Denn die herrlichkeit Gottes" does sound a bit different from "And the Glory of the Lord,"  and even if hearing the words "Alle Tale, mach Hoch Erhaben" instead of "Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted,” is a bit jarring, it is also refreshing, especially when that  same  gorgeous and recognizable  supporting Handelian melody is  still there, just lovingly enriched by Mozart's nuanced orchestral accompaniment.

   Handel’s Messiah remains one of the monumental achievements of western civilization. There is no "right" or "wrong" Messiah. There is simply Messiah. Whether it is Handel's original or revised version, Mozart’s arrangement that you will hear this evening, or perhaps another adaptation such as that of Ebenezer Prout in the late nineteenth century (which drew heavily on Der Messias),  Messiah will always  remain the singular  composition that was envisioned and created by "Mister Haendel" - a work of art that is ever sonorous, sacred, noble, uplifting and sublime.

ref 1 Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah, Cambridge University Press, 1991
ref 2 Teresa Frick
ref 3 Frick, ibid.
ref 4 Frick, ibid.

@ Vincent P. de Luise M.D. 2012.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Back to the Future: Exploring Handel’s operatic masterpiece Alcina

This essay was written for the November 16th 2012  Opera Company of Brooklyn performance of Handel's sublime and magisterial opera, Alcina,  at James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, in New York City. The combined forces of Opera Company of Brooklyn and the Barnard College Chamber Choir were conducted by Maestro Jay Meetze, with the Chorus prepared by choirmaster and internationally acclaimed organist, Gail Archer.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
by Thomas Hudson (c. 1749)

    It is one of those rare and beautiful coincidences of history that three of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, were born in the same year.   Handel (whose baptismal name was Georg Friedrich Handel) came into the world on February 23 of that magical year, 1685, in Halle, Germany, to two parents completely indifferent to music. Thankfully, he was well-schooled in organ and violin, in Halle, and Hanover, Germany, and during a four-year residency in Italy from 1706 to 1710, during which time he already began to show his dramatic genius for both the oratorio form and opera. Handel went back to Hanover in 1712, and began to work for  Duke George, Elector of Hanover, who was soon to become that other George, King George I of England. Handel left for England in 1712, became a naturalized English citizen in 1727, and never looked back.

   We admire Handel today for so many notable compositions, for example, the two large-scale works,  the Water Music Suites and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. We also appreciate his many intimate offerings, such as The Harmonious Blacksmith (the fifth harpsichord suite) and the numerous and felicitous wind concerti. Of course, Handel’s crowning achievement, the great English oratorio of 1741, Messiah, is likely what first comes to mind when we conjure him. Indeed, over the centuries, Handel's twenty-nine oratorios have remained his most popular fare. What is largely unrecognized and even less appreciated, however, is that Handel was also one of the greatest composers of opera in history.

    This oversight is finally being rectified. Indeed, it can be said that we currently live in an age of veritable operatic "Handelmania." Over the last decade, there has been a world-wide resurgence of interest in many of Handel's  forty-two  operas.  His earliest efforts in the genre, Almira and Nero, have German libretti and are rarely performed (though BEMF partly rectified this in June 2013 with its extraordinary performances of Almira), but the rest are in Italian, a more accessible language to convey the emotions and passions inherent in opera, and many of these works have been or are being revived.

G.F. Handel at age 43
by Balthasar Denner (c. 1728)
   Of those forty Italian operas, Handel's thirty-second, Alcina, (HWV 34) from 1735, is arguably the greatest, the prima inter pares. It has that winning combination of a terrific, albeit confusing plot (what else is new? - this opera after all), and a whole bunch of over-the-top arias and ensemble pieces. It even boasts a fully choreographed ballet scene, very rare for an opera not written and produced in France. Alcina is this great and flowing work of art, a tale set in music of a lovelorn sorceress who enchants a noble knight, who is loved by his betrothed, who will do anything to save him. Alcina is an opera about the nature of transience, where nothing is at it seems, and nothing is permanent. It derives from those timeless and enduring legends of the medieval ages, recounted and passed down by an oral tradition through the centuries by bards and troubadours. To fully understand the storyline of Alcina, and it is indeed a complex and intertwined story, it is therefore helpful to take a journey back in time, to the  authors from whose works Handel drew inspiration to fashion this great opera.

Alcina welcomes Ruggiero
Niccolo dell' Abate (c. 1550)
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
     Alcina's plot derived from a libretto by the seventeenth century Neapolitan poet Antonio Fanzaglia, called L’isola d’Alcina (The Island of Alcina). Fanzaglia wrote his libretto for the (Neapolitan) composer Ricardo Broschi,  the brother of the famed castrato Carlo Broschi (known to posterity as  Farinelli).  Broschi took parts of Fanzaglia’s libretto and crafted the eponymous opera, which successully premiered in Rome in 1728.  However, Fanzaglia’s libretto was not his own creation, as ultimately it in turn was based on a much older poem, the much-beloved epic of Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532).  

Ludovico Ariosto, in a detail by
Vincenzo Catena (1512)
   Ariosto, along with Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Boccaccio, was one of the great literary figures of the Italian Renaissance. Ariosto borrowed from a poem by the early 15th century poet Matteo Maria Boiardo, entitled Orlando Innamorato, (Orlando in love), which fused stories from both French (Le matier de France) and English (“The Matter of England”) legend. Ariosto added to Boiardo's tale, and  fashioned the result  into his great poem, Orlando Furioso (“Mad” Orlando).

   Orlando is the Italianate form of the French name, Roland. The ancient saga of Roland, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland),  a twelfth century legend which memorialized the wars of Charlemagne's Christian paladins against the Saracen forces who were invading Europe, is the oldest surviving story in French literature. It is an exemplar of the genre of the chanson de geste, the song of the legendary hero.  Ariosto drew from that very legend in setting the action of Orlando Furioso.

Ruggiero, riding the fabled Hippogriff,
 slays the dragon and rescues Angelica,
in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso

   Orlando Furioso remains one of the most important works in European literature. So rich and fertile was the material in the chivalric legend in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso that Handel ended up composing a trilogy of operas based on the story and its characters – Ariodante, Orlando and Alcina. Antonio Vivaldi was also inspired by the poem to compose an eponymously entitled opera, Orlando Furioso, with many of the same characters. Ariosto's poem also served as a literary muse to Edmund Spenser in The Fairie Queene, to Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, to Cervantes in Don Quixote, and to the works of Italo Calvino in modern times. 

G.F. Handel, in rare repose
by Philip Mercier (c 1730)
    Handel had for years been successfully mounting his operas at the King's Theater, under the patronage of King George II, but he was summarily booted out in 1734 by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was now funding  The Opera of the Nobility, a rival opera company run by another (Neapolitan) composer, Nicola Porpora, and which featured the aforementioned castrato Farinelli. Handel promptly found a more than suitable alternative, the recently opened Covent Garden Theater in the West End of London, built on land that had once been burial ground for the monks of Westminster Abbey ("Covent" thus stems from "Convent").  Alcina premiered there on April 16, 1735. It was Handel's third opera at Covent Garden, and it proved to be another successful outing in his first season there.

    For the premiere, and despite no longer working at the King's Theater, Handel  was still able to round up his own stable of powerhouse vocal superstars. The principal role of Alcina was sung by the superb and popular Italian soprano, Anna Maria Strada, and Morgana was essayed by the excellent Cecilia Young, soon to become the bride of the composer Thomas Arne. The role of the noble knight, Ruggiero, was sung by the renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini, the great rival of Farinelli.

    The eighteenth-century cultural historian Charles Burney recounted an amusing  anecdote concerning Handel, Carestini and the famous second act aria in Alcina, Ruggiero's Verdi prati (Green meadows). Carestini, in typical, self-serving castrato fashion,  made a big fuss to Handel at rehearsal that the aria was not ornate enough for him. Here is Burney:

Giovanni Carestini
    “The aria Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to Handel by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing, upon which Handel  went, in a great rage, to Carestini’s house, and in a way which few composers, except Handel, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cried out to Carestini, "You toc ! Don't I know better than your seluf vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not   sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver !”"
   Perhaps the most well-known aria in Alcina is the pyrotechnic gem  Tornami a vagheggiar (Return to me with yearning) which closes Act I and which has been an operatic recital showpiece since it was first sung by Madame Strada at the opera's premiere, and continually into the modern era (see Sutherland, Joan, and Dessay, Natalie, for starters).  There is a curious sidebar to this aria. In Handel's original score, the aria was to be sung by Alcina herself, the lovelorn, tormented sorceress who enchants men who are marooned on her island, and who is delirious with joy that Ruggiero has come into her life as a new lover. In later essayings of the opera, and virtually always today, the aria is sung not by Alcina, but rather by Morgana, Alcina's younger sister and a sorceress herself, who is delirious with joy that Bradamante has come into her life as a new lover.  Hmmm.

    Well, it does pay to know from the opera's outset  that Oronte loves Morgana who loves Bradamante (who dresses up as Ricciardo) who loves Ruggiero who (forced by Alcina's magic) loves Alcina. Yet even with this skeleton key, it is not completely evident as to why the aria was taken from Alcina and has come into the possession of Morgana. One possible reason may be that Alcina should only get to sing the slow, poignant, sad adagio arias of longing, yearning and unrequited love, as befits her demeanor, her cruelty and her evil and self-serving modus operandi, leaving the other principals in the opera to trumpet the joyous, spirited arias of newfound love.

    Oronte is a minor character in Alcina, but the part was written for the 21 year old phenomenon John Beard, who would inspire Handel to write several major tenor roles in his English oratorios. The role of Oberto was only created right before the premiere; in fact the libretto from Broschi which Handel used  did not contain the character. Oberto was only conceived and added by Handel after he heard the remarkable boy soprano William Savage (who would  grow to become an impressive baritone for Handel's later operas). The role of Oberto is usually sung by a female soprano, as it will be this evening.

   Alcina is composed in a musical genre called opera seria. This operatic form almost invariably has a mythological or ancient historical storyline, an Italian libretto, and contains many august, stately and noble arias.  The arias are almost always in A-B-A form, so-called da capo arias, because the return to the A theme (the "da capo" or "to the head, to the top") allows the singer, in those days often a castrato of immense vocal power and popularity for several of the roles, to ornament the aria with florid vocal filigrees around the melody. Gluck, Hasse, Alessandro Scarlatti, Porpora and Mozart wrote operas in this genre of opera seria, some examples of which are Gluck's Orpheus, and Mozart's Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito.  Over time, however, the opera seria style became stale and repetitive, and it lost favor with its audience. However, Handel miraculously found a way to keep this operatic genre fresh and vital, by continually exploring, through his characters' arias, their inherent emotions, doubts, and paradoxes.  Indeed, what distinguishes Alcina is that it demonstrates Handel's brilliance as a composer of drama and interpersonal relationships, remarkable creations from someone who, despite years of celebrity status in London, had no known love affairs in his life.

Handel in the guise of Orpheus
by Louis Francois Roubiliac 1738
Victoria and Albert Museum

   Handel was to have another fifteen years of glory at Covent Garden, then back at the  King's Theatre and the Theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields, composing ten more operas for those venues.  In 1751, at the age of 66, Handel began noticing changes in his eyesight. It is difficult to know exactly  what specific disorder may have caused his  visual loss. Some scholars still insist that Handel had cataracts, because there is evidence that he had these putative “cataracts” couched (that is, lanced to push them out of the central pupillary axis) on several occasions, by the itinerant charlatan surgeon, the Chevalier John Taylor. A closer reading of Handel’s precise correspondence makes it clear, however, that the visual loss he sustained was not only first monocular, then binocular, but in both eyes, his loss of sight was abrupt.

   The rapid loss of sight implies that Handel likely did not suffer from cataracts, which never cause sudden visual loss. Therefore, despite the bombastic pronouncements and rodomontade by the Chevalier Taylor that Handel had "cataracts," it is much more likely that he (Handel) sustained a stroke to the ophthalmic artery of each eye, an entity called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION). This stroke of the major blood vessel serving the anterior part, or head, of the optic nerve, caused that tissue to infarct from lack of blood flow,and die off. AION can be associated with other systemic illnesses, such as headaches, myalgias, arthralgias and anorexia.  Handel's age of 66 years at that time is consistent with case studies of AION, whereas it would be a bit young for someone to have significant visual loss from cataracts. It is also of note that AION is more common in those with Scandinavian or German heritage. Handel,  born in Germany, fit this demographic risk factor as well. On August 5, 1752, The General Advertiser of London did report: “We hear that George-Frederick Handel, Esq., the celebrated Composer of Musick, was seized a few Days ago with a Paralytick Disorder of the Head, which has deprived him  of Sight.”

Statue and Memorial of G.F. Handel  with
"I know my Redeemer Liveth" from Messiah
by Louis Francois Roubiliac
Westminister Abbey  unveiled in 1762)
    After he lost his vision, Handel's general health inexorably declined  through the last eight years of his life. He became more religious, more introspective, and  retreated into a cocoon of  solitude and silence. Although he still played the organ and acceded to conduct the occasional Messiah, Handel's overall compositional style changed. He went on to complete the oratorio Jephtha in 1752, but that was to be his last work in the genre.  Handel's days as a composer of opera were long past as well; his last opera, Deidamia, premiered in 1741. He died on April 14, 1759, a justly famous and widely admired cultural icon, having never married, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his estate  to his niece, Johanna, and also, as per four separate codicils, to his friends, his servants and several charities.

   Posterity has also been a most grateful beneficiary of the works of  "Mr. Handel." His remarkably rich musical output, both  in its remarkable quantity and its extraordinary quality, is no better exemplified than in the glorious opera you will hear this evening,  Alcina.

© Vincent P. de Luise M.D.  2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Most Sublime Torso: Unraveling the Threads of the Mozart Requiem


Wolfgang Amade' Mozart
The unfinished
enlargement of the original
1782 oil painting by
Mozart's brother-in-law,
Joseph Lange
      Of the many ineffable compositions birthed from the genius that was Johannes Chrystostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (1756-1791), none has engendered more lasting fascination and such a profound degree of wistfulness than his last and most powerful work, the unfinished Requiem Mass. The reasons for the Requiem’s commission, the tragic and premature end of Mozart’s life while he was in the process of writing it, and the strange and unlikely trajectory subsequently taken by this haunting and wondrous piece of music are still being debated today, over two hundred years after its conception. The chronology and musicology of this enduring legacy in the musical firmament, from its most brilliant star, is itself a remarkable narrative.
In the summer of 1781, after years of concertizing in and away from Salzburg, and always chafing there under his subjugation by Archbishop Colloredo, Wolfgang Mozart moved permanently from his birthplace to Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg empire and one of the epicenters of musical life in Europe.
Mozart soon thereafter married Constanze Weber, and he developed a reputation and modest income as a piano tutor and musician giving subscription concerts. While continuing to work in the musical vernacular of his time, that of Classical Style, Mozart transformed the felicitous ideas of Johann Christian Bach, and Michael and Joseph Haydn, investing them with an extraordinary tonal harmony and a richness of invention. Mozart achieved an evolutionary summit of sublime and polished perfection across the spectrum of compositional genres: symphony, concerto, string and instrumental trios, quartets and quintets, as well solo piano, lieder, sacred music, and opera.  

     By the summer of 1791, Mozart had been appointed assistant Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Church, had scored varied successes with the three da Ponte operatic collaborations (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi' fan tutte), and was about to be commissioned by his  friend and fellow mason, Emanuel Schikaneder, to compose a Singspiel, a german-language fairy tale and masonic allegory, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Sometime in July, 1791, under pressure to finish  both Zauberflöte and another commission (this time from Prague, a work which would become the opera La Clemenza di Tito, for the installation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia), Mozart received a visitor, the mysterious and so-called “grey messenger,” who asked him to write a Requiem Mass, a musical work for the deceased. Mozart was handed 30 ducats, half the total commission, with the balance to be given him upon its completion. The other strange proviso from the messenger was that Mozart was never to know or inquire about the individual who commissioned the work. 

The poster for the
1984 film, based
on the 1979 play
by Peter Shaffer
    Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman saw the potential to take this incredible story and conjure both a play (1979) and ultimately the eight Academy-award winning film (1984), Amadeus.  In their highly-fictionalized version, Antonio Salieri was the “grey messenger” (here, however, Salieri wears a black, Janus-faced Venetian carnival mask), and the moral of both play and film was the cosmic and metaphysical irony that Mozart, the musical genius with the scatological mouth, absolute pitch and eidetic memory, could effortlessly toss off masterpieces, while Salieri, a devoutly religious man but a journeyman court composer, could only create mediocrity.  Despite many stretches of the truth in both the play and movie, they were both deservedly hailed not only for bringing Mozart’s sublime music to a broader public, but also for demonstrating the creative process of genius. The real account of the commission of the Requiem is more prosaic but stranger than fiction. 

Count Franz Walsegg zu Stuppach (Stuppach is a town 30 miles south of Vienna) was a wealthy gypsum mine owner and a passionate amateur flutist and cellist. His curious pastime was to commission works from professional composers, copy them out, and then pass them off as his own compositions, performing them with his colleagues, family and friends in twice-weekly chamber recitals on his estate at Schloss Stuppach

The Requiem commission which Walsegg sought from Mozart through an intermediary was to honor the anniversary of the death of Walsegg’s bride, Anna, who had passed away at the age of twenty from puerperal sepsis in February. The mysterious "grey messenger" who visited Mozart was either Franz Anton Leitgeb, who was Walsegg’s steward, or more likely Johann Sortschan, his lawyer. Mozart sketched a few ideas for the Requiem in August, 1791,  but quickly put away the work to concentrate again on Zauberflöte and Tito. During that time, Mozart was revisited by the messenger, who was checking  back on the Requiem's progress.

     Mozart began to have paranoid ideations that the Requiem commission he had begun composing was intended for his own funeral.  Constanze recalled the two of them walking in Vienna’s Prater Gardens in September, 1791, when Mozart confided to her that, “I believe that I am writing my own funeral mass.” Mozart was convinced he was being slowly poisoned; he was not, neither by the Freemasons, who revered him, nor by Antonio Salieri, though that latter tale became fodder for an 1830 Pushkin play and an 1897 Rimsky-Korsakov opera, Mozart and Salieri.

    Despite his young age at the time of his death, not yet thirty-six, Mozart was plagued with episodes of ill health. The litany of diseases which Mozart presumably had at various times in his life sounds like the differential diagnosis scene from an episode of the popular TV series with a certain Doctor G.H.  These include, inter alia, recurrent streptococcal infections, variola (smallpox), quinsy (tonsillar abscess), rheumatic fever, infectious endocarditis, chronic renal disease (from post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis or Henoch-Schönlein purpura), cyclothymia, antimony overdosage (paradoxically, Mozart was self-medicating with this potential poison), subdural or extradural hematoma, hypertension, and even the possibility of acute trichinosis (he had eaten some under-cooked pork cutlets a month before he died).

   A distinction should be made between these chronic illnesses and Mozart's presumed medical conditions which were immediately proximate to and causative of his abrupt and early demise.  Peter Davies M.D. (J. Roy. Soc. Med. 1991) has suggested that this was a consequence of a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from hypertension secondary to an acute nephritis (kidney inflammation) from Henoch-Schönlein purpura (a rare disease which can result from streptococcal infection); Mozart was likely severely anemic and already in uremic coma. 

Mozart's death certificate (no autopsy was performed) stated “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“heated miliary fever”), a common diagnosis of the time, one which is far too non-specific a term on which to opine a diagnosis, but which may relate to the inflammatory rash of rheumatic fever, which in turn may have been a result of Mozart's presumed strep infections. 

Richard Zegers M.D. (Ann Int. Med. 2009) reviewed the records of 5,011 Viennese adults who died in the two months before and after December 1791, and compared that data to comparable months in 1790 and 1792,  finding a higher than normal rate of death from an epidemic of presumed streptococcal infection.    

     Even the details of Mozart’s last days are fraught with inconsistencies. Constanze’s testimony and that of her sister Sophie Weber Haibl not only do not jibe, they were only offered in 1825, thirty-four years after Mozart expired!  On the last full day of his life, December 4th, 1791, Mozart was said to be in bed composing the Lacrimosa and rehearsing other sections of the Requiem with family and colleagues.  Mozart had been working in the prior week with Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a composer of modest repute who was also the copyist who had previously assisted him with several of the Tito arias. According to Constanze, Mozart had given Süssmayr instruction on how to finish the Requiem in the eventuality that Mozart would die before its completion.

The putaive death mask
of Wolfgang Mozart,
either by Count Dehm or
by Taddeus Ribola
     Mozart was extremely uncomfortable by this point, his body markedly edematous (Wassersucht), with myalgias that made it painful for anyone even to touch him. Sophie Haibl recalled that Mozart was puffing out his cheeks to imitate the trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum section of the Requiem when he lost consciousness. Mozart’s physicians, Thomas von Sallaba and Nicholas Closset, two of the most respected in Vienna, who also consulted with Doctor Gudener von Lobes, diagnosed him as having “una deposita sulla testa  (“a deposit on the head)” from rheumatic fever. They hastened the demise of their patient by recommending venesection (blood-letting), creating in him a hypovolemic state, even as he was already anemic from the putative renal disease. At 12:55 AM on December 5, 1791, Mozart died.

Mozart Requiem
Introitus:Requiem aeternam
Note forged signature  by Sussmayr
on  top right
1792 "W.A. Mozart"
    At the time of his death, of the fourteen individual sections in the Requiem, Mozart fully completed only the first section, Introitus: Requiem aeternam.  He wrote out the vocal parts and supporting bass line for eight subsequent sections (particella writing), along with episodic inner instrumental motivic measures in some of the movements, from the Dies irae to the Hostias.  Mozart composed only the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa, but did not put pen to paper for the Sanctus, Benedictus or Agnus Dei.

    On December 10, 1791, Schikaneder and Baron Gottfried von Swieten arranged for a memorial service for Mozart at which the Requiem was played. What Requiem could this have been? What was performed of Mozart’s work was only the completed first movement, the Introitus:Requiem aeternam and a patched-up Kyrie Eleison, scored by Süssmayr and Franz Freystädtler by doubling the vocal parts in the orchestra. 

    Constanze, in significant debt, needing to raise funds immediately, and knowing that there was the balance of the commission owed her for the completed Requiem, began to seek out a composer who could finish the Requiem score as it then existed, in a handwriting style close to Mozart’s, and continue the deception by delivering it as the autograph to Walsegg.  She asked Joseph Eybler, a composer admired by Mozart, to do the completion, but after a few weeks with the autograph he only finished a small portion, and curiously returned it to Constanze.  She eventually offered the score back to Sussmäyr, who completed it and, mirabile dictu, did so in a handwriting style that was indistinguishable from Mozart’s (at least to Walsegg), forged Mozart’s signature on the frontispiece, and returned the “finished” Requiem sometime in late February, 1792.  

Constanze Weber Mozart
As a widow in 1802
    The deceptions continued. Though Constanze promised the autograph only to Walsegg and did get the balance of the commission, she also had several copies made of it, one of which she sold to the publishers Brietkopf and Härtel; Constanze shrewdly made money on each sale. Walsegg eventually found out, threatened legal recourse, then backed off when he realized he would be outed as a fraud.

    Süssmayr was later contacted by Breitkopf and Härtel, who requested his statement on authorship. Süssmayr maintained he finished the orchestrations of the Dies irae to Hostias, and composed the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei completely on his own. The Breitkopf edition of Mozart’s Requiem never mentioned Süssmayr’s contribution.

     Constanze claimed that Mozart had written a majority of the composition, and that there also existed, according to Constanze, some “scraps of paper” (Zettelchen) from Mozart, such as the one containing the other-worldly Amen Fugue" fragment for the end of the  Lacrimosa next to a Rex tremendae sketch, (discovered by Wolfgang Plath in 1962 and the only sketch ever found), which she said gave Süssmayr the melodic ideas for those last three sections, as well as recommending that Süssmayr repeat the theme of the Kyrie eleison after the Lux aeterna in the last movement Communio. This allowed Constanze to maintain that the overall concept of the Requiem, if not every note, was indeed Mozart’s.

Requiem: Dies Irae
Sussmayr completed the inner
instrumental parts
    The first performance of the “completed” Requiem was in January 1793, at a benefit for Constanze arranged by von Swieten.  Walsegg finally performed it (as his own composition!) in December 1793, almost three years after his wife’s passing, had it transcribed for string quintet, and never performed it again. Upon his death, the autograph score in his possession passed to what is now the Austrian National Library, which also received a fragment that Eybler had obtained and subsequently donated (right after he had a stroke while conducting the Requiem in 1833) and another fragment which Süssmayr had been given by Constanze in 1800. The totality of these fragments is the torso which has come down to us as the Requiem and which most modern audiences recognize.

      As a result of these insufficiencies, there have been a number of modern-day completions of the Requiem, including efforts by Richard Maunder, Robert Levin, Duncan Druce, H.C. Robbins-Landon and Franz Beyer. Of these, the Beyer version (1971), which is being performed this evening, has certain advantages. Beyer elected not to add any of his own musical ideas or additional scoring.  He allowed Mozart’s music, with the completion by Süssmayr (who was, despite all the criticism heaped upon him for his compositional inadequacies, a late eighteenth-century composer  in the Viennese international Classical Style just like Mozart, who was Mozart's copyist, who had an understanding of  what Mozart envisioned in his  Requiem, and whose version of it is widely recognized), to stand out.

   Beyer corrected numerous and obvious technical errors that Süssmayr had made, and which, ironically, further demonstrate that the autograph score could not have been only in Mozart’s hand. These mistakes were most evident in the basset horn parts, a clarinet-like instrument which Mozart much admired, knew intimately from his close friendship with Anton Stadler (for whom he wrote the clarinet concerto, K.V. 622, two months prior) and for which he would have never sloppily composed.

W. Mozart
The posthumous 1819 oil
by Barbara Kraft
Gesellschafft der
     Those two essential aspects of musical genius, eidetic memory and absolute pitch, gave Mozart an extraordinary ability to recall and adapt, whether consciously or not, a vast array of melodic material he had heard during his life; during his Vienna years, he became obsessed with Baroque music and J.S. Bach in particular.  Musicologists have discerned a number of thematic antecedents in the Mozart Requiem. Strains of Handel’s The Ways of Zion do Mourn from the Funeral Anthem of Queen Caroline, With his Stripes we are Healed from Messiah,  and a refrain from one of his Dettingen Anthems, have been found in the score. One of the te decet hymnus Gregorian chants from Michael Haydn’s Requiem can also be heard within (ref. Wolff). 

Yet these possible borrowings do not detract from the many sublime and uniquely Mozartean melodies which abound in the Requiem: four-part settings; archaic double fugue cadences in the Kyrie eleison; the French Baroque motif of the royal double-dotted figures in the Rex Tremendae; the empfindsamer stil melody echoing C.P.E. Bach that underpins the aching beauty of the Recordare; the agitated strings which open the Confutatis and which accompany the powerful double chorus and suddenly create soft arpeggios; adventurous chromatic intervals and  counterpoint throughout; and moments that prefigure Romanticism (ref. Wolff, ibid). Given Mozart’s strong Masonic beliefs, despite his Catholic faith, there are Masonic references in the Requiem as well, in the prominent use of basset horns and bassoons that he had employed in his earlier Freimauermusik, and in certain specific triadic chordal and motivic structures throughout the work.

The Domine Jesu section of
the Requiem, with the
 "Quam Olim d.c. (da capo)"
Note the tear in the lower right.
Were these Mozart's last words?
    Mozart, who had not composed a piece of sacred music since he left Salzburg ten years earlier, was now pointing in a new direction, first with the motet, Ave Verum Corpus (KV 618), which he penned in September of 1791, and then  the Requiem, towards a  textured and nuanced trajectory for sacred music, a style that was at once chordally complex and melodically rich.
    The Mozart Requiem has served as an enduring memento through the centuries. It was played at the funerals of Haydn (1809), Beethoven (1827), Napoleon (reburial, 1840), Constanze Mozart (1842) and Chopin (1849), and at the funerals of both of the Mozarts’ surviving sons (1844, 1858). It was part of President Kennedy’s memorial mass in Boston in 1964. Most poignantly, it was performed by over two hundred orchestras and choruses around the world on the anniversary date of 9/11.

     We can never hope to hear the Requiem fully as Mozart had fully conceived it.  There will never be found a version from Mozart’s hand that has not been amended by another composer, and it would be a fool’s errand to assume that this essay has answered fully the many questions which still swirl concerning the Requiem or the cause of Mozart’s illnesses and death. The Mozart Requiem will always be a torso, a musical composition unfinished by its creator. Each time one experiences the Mozart Requiem, even as  they are transported by the architecture and sweep of this composition as gloriously and uncontestably that of Mozart,  it remains the product of more than one mind and one heart.  Nonetheless, this mystical, transcendent work of art is imbued with such an overwhelming feeling of sacred, uplifting nobility and hope, that it will always remain one of the greatest touchstones of civilization.
 ©Vincent P. de Luise, M.D. 2012

Sic transit gloria mundi
P. Davies, J. Roy. Soc. Med., 1991
C. Wolff , Mozart's Requiem: Historical and Analytical Studies, Documents and Score,

     U. California Press, 1994
D. Leeson, Opus Ultimum: The Story of the Mozart Requiem, Algora Pub., 2004.
B. Dewitt, Mozart's Requiem:Labyrinth of Deception   2009
R. Zegers, Ann. Int. Med., 2009

© Vincent P. de Luise,  M.D.  2012