Updated: Sep 24, 2022
The greatest musical work of all time
The legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was only thirty-five years old when death began to tighten its grip around him. On his deathbed, he would compose his final masterpiece — a Mass for the souls of the dead.
K. 626 Requiem in D Minor
Mozart’s soul during those last days can be heard in the piece of music: a requiem (requiem means “rest”) to help the mourning mourn and to help guide the soul of one who died to Heaven. Mozart’s greatness can be particularly heard in the last eight bars of music he ever wrote: which most of us know as the beginning of his unfinished Lacrimosa.
By listening to this transcendental piece of the highest art, we can experience what it is like to ascend to heaven. Unfortunately, Mozart breathed his last before he could finish his last work. What else could be added to a work such as this except the music of heaven itself? Luckily, Mozart got pretty close to what heaven sounds like already so we won’t have to guess.
The cause of Mozart’s death is disputed. I won’t deeply address that for the sake of time. Modern theories range from a Vitamin D deficiency, poisoning, a strep infection, or just a plain fever. If you want to watch a portrayal of a possible poisoning by an old musical rival, Amadeus is an excellent portrayal of that. Just as the cause of his death is disputed, even Mozart’s last words also vary depending on who you ask. These possibilities are my favorites:
“Yes, I see I was ill to have had such an absurd idea of having taken poison, give me back the Requiem and I will go on with it.”
“The taste of death is upon my lips . . . I feel something that is not of this earth.”
Because this work was never definitely finished by the maestro himself, there are a number of different imaginings of this requiem. Franz Xaver Süssmayr is the one recognized by most as completing what was unwritten at the time of Mozart’s death on December 5th, 1791; he was a composer in his own right, but whose biggest legacy today is that he finished the music of someone else, precisely the last sections. One of Mozart’s pupils may also have written some sections of the requiem; his name was Franz Jacob Freystädler. Apparently, there were a lot of people named Franz in late eighteenth-century Vienna, the mecca of music.
Modern composers, such as Robert Levin, have also reimagined pieces of the larger work.
In a way, how this work came about reminds me of the Bible; a creation shrouded in mystery, and formed in ways that we have no record of. Nonetheless, if a survivor of the apocalypse in the future finds this piece of music he will appreciate its beauty and be moved by it. He will be mused by it because this, this strong whole where the weakest parts do not hinder it, this sound reaching to the highest of human ability, will forever be known as music.
Finally, I will address the elephant in the room: what recording of this am I going to choose? Beginners who first listen to classical music listen to the first recording or first conductor they come across; musical aficionados will research the editions before they listen to a certain work—research longer than when they listen to the actual work of music.
In the last weeks, to prepare for this article, I listened to eleven different recordings. My favorite, because of the power, mixing, tempo, and style, is the 1987 Herbet von Karajan of the Vienna Philharmonic spin—that is the one I will listen to as I write this. The following editions are also very good and have my seal of recommendation: the precise Neville Marriner (1991), the grand Leonard Bernstein (1989), the balanced Eliot Gardiner (1987), the Karl Böhm (1791), and the hauntingly slow Sergiu Celibidache (2004).
You really can’t go wrong with what edition you listen to. The music is that strong. Only the worst of conductors could totally ruin this requiem.
But without further ado, ladies and gentlemen . . . Mozart!
I. Introitus (intro)
The legendary opening instantly conveys sadness to the listener. I like to envision this section playing on a rainy day at a gloomy funeral. Mozart knew his own death was close when he composed this. It was as if Mozart could see his own body being laid in its grave; as if when his body was laid into its grave, the music began to play.
The choir blends excellently with the fluctuating sound of the instruments. This atmosphere of longing and yearning demands and evokes pity.
“Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. You are praised, God, in Zion, and homage will be paid to You in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer, to You all flesh will come. Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.”
. . .
“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem. Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis care veniet. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.”
II. Kyrie (Lord, have mercy)
Urgency comes across as soon as the music starts again. Impending doom seems to be approaching and nothing can be done except praying for mercy. Pay attention to how this movement ends on a long note; as long as the note can play, maybe the inevitable that is coming can be withheld. Then it stops.
“Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us.”
. . .
“Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison. Kyrie, eleison.”
III. Sequentia (sequence)
Dies Irae (day of wrath)
Judgment has fallen upon the earth. None is hidden from God’s eye. Nothing besides His mercy can spare one from His terrible wrath.
“Day of wrath, day of anger will dissolve the world in ashes, as foretold by David and the Sibyl. Great trembling there will be when the Judge descends from heaven to examine all things closely.”
. . .
“Dies irae, dies illa Solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sibylla. Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus!”
This brief section is a highlight, if not the highlight, of the requiem. Mozart is at his best when he is creating dramatic moments; this is him at his best. Even demons from hell fear this. This is certainly the best movement of the entire work. Its awful theme: the day of judgment.
Tuba Mirum (the wondrous trumpet)
Finally, we have time to rest after all the powerful sound we have been hearing. Mercy was the theme of the previous three sections. This section deals with salvation.
Though this part is named after the trumpet, a heavenly-sounding instrument, Mozart uses a trombone. The darker sound of the trombone is used to fit the theme of this movement. The trombone is used to wake the dead who lay in their graves to come forth for The Final Judgment.
“A trumpet, spreading a wondrous sound Through the graves of all lands, Will drive mankind before the throne. Death and Nature shall be astonished When all creation rises again To answer to the Judge. A book, written in, will be brought forth In which is contained everything that is, Out of which the world shall be judged. When therefore the Judge takes His seat Whatever is hidden will reveal itself. Nothing will remain unavenged. What then shall I say, wretch that I am, What advocate entreat to speak for me, When even the righteous may hardly be secure?”
. . .
“Tuba mirum spargens sonum Per sepulcra regionum Coget omnes ante thronum. Mors slopebit et natora Cum resurget creatura Judicanti responsura. Liber scriptus proferetur In quo totum continetur, Unde mundus judicetur. Judex ergo cum sedebit Quidquid latet apparebit, Nil inultum remanebit. Quid sum miser tunc dicturus, Quem patronum togaturus, Cum vix justus sit securus?”
Rex Tremendae (tremendous king)
The voices of man come together in song before the almighty throne. They repeat “Rex,” which means “King.”
This is a truly glorious section of the requiem. It is short, and epic — heavenly you could say. The strings start us off by evoking great emotion; and it only gets better from there.
‘King of tremendous majesty, who freely saves those worthy ones, save me, source of mercy.”
. . .
“Rex tremendae majestatis, qui salvandos savas gratis, salve me, fons pietatis.”
This section is opera-esque. The male voice and the female voice go back and forth while the instruments follow them. The lyrics themselves are some of the best of the entire requiem.
I have to admit: I didn’t like this section when I first started listening to the requiem; perhaps that was because it is a bit of a comedown from the previous sections we have heard. I love it now. Keep listening to it, over and over, and I am sure you will come to appreciate it if you don’t already.
“Remember, blessed Jesu, That I am the cause of Thy pilgrimage, Do not forsake me on that day. Seeking me Thou didst sit down weary, Thou didst redeem me, suffering death on the cross. Let not such toil be in vain. Just and avenging Judge, Grant remission Before the day of reckoning. I groan like a guilty man. Guilt reddens my face. Spare a suppliant, O God. Thou who didst absolve Mary Magdalene And didst hearken to the thief, To me also hast Thou given hope. My prayers are not worthy, But Thou in Thy merciful goodness grant That I burn not in everlasting fire. Place me among Thy sheep And separate me from the goats, Setting me on Thy right hand.”
. . .
“Recordare, Jesu pie, Quod sum causa tuae viae, Ne me perdas ilia die. Quaerens me sedisti lassus, Redemisti crucem passus, Tamus labor non sit cassus. Juste judex ultionis Donum fac remissionis Ante diem rationis. lngemisco tamquam reus, Culpa rubet vultus meus, Supplicanti parce, Deus. Qui Mariam absolvisti Et latronem exaudisti, Mihi quoque spem dedisti. Preces meae non sum dignae, Sed tu bonus fac benigne, Ne perenni cremet igne. Inter oves locurn praesta, Et ab haedis me sequestra, Statuens in parle dextra.”
The shock and horror of the Dies Irae is back once again. This part is amazing. The melodies are amazing. The singing itself, though, is utterly haunting.
“When the accursed have been confounded And given over to the bitter flames, Call me with the blessed. I pray in supplication on my knees. My heart contrite as the dust, Safeguard my fate.”
. . .
“Confutatis maledictis Flammis acribus addictis, Voca me cum benedictis. Oro supplex et acclinis, Cor contritum quasi cinis, Gere curam mei finis.”
And now we come to the last music Mozart ever wrote. If you have never heard this requiem before, I hate to break it to you, this will not be the first time you have heard this. It is arguably the greatest three minutes of music ever created. It was my introduction to classical music five or six years ago and I have never forgot it.
This is the end of the third movement of Mozart’s Requiem. This is the end of The Final Judgment. Sadness shall meet its end on the day of wrath. The last tears ever fallen on the ashes, they shall fall.
“That day of tears and mourning, when from the ashes shall arise, all humanity to be judged. Spare us by your mercy, Lord, gentle Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. Amen”
. . .
“Lacrimosa dies ilia Qua resurget ex favilla Judicandus homo reus. Huic ergo parce, Deus, Pie Jesu Domine, Dona els requiem.”
IV. Offertorium (the offering of the bread and wine/Eucharist)
Domine Jesu (Lord Jesus)
Now we begin the second half of the requiem. I will take the first half any day you ask me; but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also love the second half which has many amazing moments. The entire whole is my favorite piece of music ever.
This movement is written to be played while the Blood and Flesh of Jesus are offered inside the church. The glory of God is the theme of this section. Though, it still has a hint of darkness.
“Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit. Deliver them from the lion’s mouth. Neither let them fall into darkness nor the black abyss swallow them up. And let St. Michael, Thy standard-bearer, lead them into the holy light which once Thou didst promise to Abraham and his seed.”
. . .
“Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae, libera animas omniurn fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni, et de prof undo lacu: libera cas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum, sed signifer sanctus Michael repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam, quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus.”
The tension of this section always keeps you on your toes. It is mysterious, conveying the mystery of the sacrifice. “Allow them, O Lord, to cross from death into the life” voices plead.
“We offer unto Thee this sacrifice of prayer and praise. Receive it for those souls whom today we commemorate. Allow them, O Lord, to cross from death into the life which once Thou didst promise to Abraham and his seed.”
. . .
“Hostias et preces, tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus: tu suscipe pro animabus illis, quarum hodie memoriam facimus: fac eas, Domine, de morte Iransire ad vitam, quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus.”
V. Sanctus (holy)
I like to view this movement as the companion to Rex Tremendae. They both have this epic feel to them. They are intended to musically praise God in all His glory, in all His majesty, and that comes across fully to the listener.
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
. . .
Hosanna in the highest.” “Sanctus. Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth! Pleni suni coeli et terra gloria tua. Osanna in excelsis.”
VI. Benedictus (blessed)
In my opinion, this is one of the weaker parts of the requiem. It is a step down from the grandeur of the early movements. Nonetheless, I do greatly enjoy the last minute of it immensely.
“Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
. . .
“Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Osanna in excelsis.”
VII. Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)
As we now move on from the weakest section — we now will listen to one of the best sections of the entire requiem.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, the innocent sacrifice, is called upon to lead the souls to everlasting rest and repose. The journey of the soul up to heaven is almost over.
“Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest. Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest.”
. . .
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam.”
VIII. Cummunio: Lux Aeterna (communion: eternal light)
The last movement of the requiem is meant for the ending of a funeral mass. The final hymn is sung. We began with mercy and now we end with it.“Grant the dead eternal rest” they sing “because Thou are merciful.” Purgatory is almost over; Heaven is near and we end this movement at the gates.
The callbacks to the Kyrie that are within this movement are great surprises to the ear. Mozart, knowing the importance of their recurrence, told Süssmayr to include them. They definitely take the music to another level; only Mozart himself could have known that.
The end of Mozart’s Requiem is tied up nicely. It ends on a long note of perfection. When this requiem is played at a funeral, applause is not needed; silence lets the music speak for itself.
‘May eternal light shine on them, O Lord. with Thy saints for ever, because Thou art merciful. Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, because Thou are merciful.”
. . .
“Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis mis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, cum sanetis tuis in aeternum, quia plus es.”
The full requiem played in a beautiful cathedral:
I hope you enjoyed this. I had fun writing it and learned a lot about this Requiem in the process. I’m still not bored of it yet after so many listens— I don’t think that is possible.