Mozart Requiem – November 2, 2014



Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Komm süsser Tod (Come, sweet Death)

[Orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski]


Komm süsser Tod (Come, sweet Death) is one of a number of sacred songs that Bach contributed to a songbook published by George Christian Schemelli in 1736. Leopold Stokowski transcribed the piece in 1946. “In giving this sublime melody orchestral expression,” he said, “I have tried to imagine what Bach would do had he the rich resources of the orchestra of today at his disposal.”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem

Sometime during July 1791, Mozart received a visitor. He was Anton Leutgeb, the emissary of Count Franz von Walsegg zu Stuppah, who wanted to commission a requiem from Mozart.  The Count’s wife had died earlier in the year and he wanted a fitting requiem that he could pass off as his own composition.  Even though he was busy with The Magic Flute and was commissioned to write La Clemenza di Tito that same month, Mozart could hardly refuse such a deal.


When Mozart died at 12:55 on the morning of December 5, 1791, the Requiem lay unfinished, with the date 1792 on the title page, indicating that he intended to finish it during the next year.  His widow feared that Count Walsegg would demand his down payment back if an incomplete work were delivered, so the task of completing the work was entrusted to Mozart’s pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.


The debate over just which parts of the Requiem were written by Mozart and which were written by Süssmayr has continued to this day.  Mozart’s widow maintained that Süssmayr merely did “what anyone would have done.” And Süssmayr himself explained that “I. while Mozart was still alive, quite often played and sang the parts already set to music, that he often spoke to me about the composition and the process and reasons of his instrumentation of the work.”


The first performance of the Requiem took place in Vienna on January 2, 1793 at a concert to benefit Mozart’s widow.  When Count Walsegg got wind of this, he threatened to sue, thought better of it, and finally conducted his own performance on December 14, 1793.


According to Karl Geiringer, Mozart’s choice of instruments results in “a disembodied, dark timbre, perfectly expressing the solemnity and mystery of death.  But despite its sombre majesty the work is imbued with an affirmative and soothing spirit.  The inner peace and serenity, which were granted to Mozart, illuminate the whole Requiem, and the sadness it evokes is gentle rather than violent….  Despite minor weaknesses, the Requiem on the whole impresses us as a homogeneous work which, in any case, belongs to the great treasures of our artistic heritage.  It is a composition as transcendental as it is human, and out of tremor and guilt it leads us gently toward peace and salvation.”


Max Bruch (1838-1920): Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44


When Bruch heard the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate play his first violin concerto, he resolved to write a second concerto, which he called “a product of the inspiration aroused in me by Sarasate’s indescribably perfect performance of the first concerto.” Three years later, he composed the Scottish Fantasy for Sarasate. “I wrote these works for Sarasate, body and soul,” he said, “and no one can touch him in playing them.” Sarasate introduced the second concerto at the Crystal Palace in London on November 4, 1877.

Sarasate suggested a program for the work, based on the so-called Carlist Wars over the succession to the Spanish throne. Accordingly, the first movement suggests the wreckage of a battlefield in which a young woman searches for her lover. The second movement is like an operatic recitative, with a bugle-call figure that carries over into the third movement. Sarasate thought this depicted a cavalry regiment.

Biographer Christopher Fifield writes, “It is unusual in having a slow first movement, which, in sonata form, is broad and powerful in its orchestra, and contains brilliant passage work for the soloist. It is followed by another unusual feature, a middle movement in the style of a recitative leading without a break…to a substantial Finale, dominated by its scherzo rhythm.”


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): The Firebird Suite No. 2 (1919)


When the great impresario Serge Diaghilev needed a new piece for his Russian Ballet, he turned to his former teacher Anatol Liadov, a notorious procrastinator. The subject was to be the Russian folktale of the Firebird. Liadov estimated the composition would take a year. By mutual consent, the task was given to the twenty-seven-year-old Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky finished The Firebird music on May 18, 1910. A French critic described the composer playing through the score at an informal gathering in St. Petersburg: “The composer, young, slim, and uncommunicative, with vague meditative eyes, and lips set firm in an energetic looking face, was at the piano. But the moment he began to play, the modest and dimly lit dwelling glowed with a dazzling radiance. By the end of the first scene, I was conquered: by the last, I was lost in admiration. The manuscript on the music-rest, scored over with fine pencilings, revealed a masterpiece.”

At one of the rehearsals, Diaghilev observed: “Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Stravinsky’s celebrity was assured at the first performance at the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910. Gabriel Pierné conducted. “The first Firebird!” Stravinsky recalled. “I stood in the dark of the Opera through eight orchestral rehearsals…. The stage and the whole theatre glittered at the première and that is all I remember.”

Tamara Karsavina danced the title role. The choreography was by Mikhail Fokine, “easily the most disagreeable man I have ever worked with,” said Stravinsky, who was modest about the work’s success. “The performance was warmly applauded by the Paris public,” he said. “I am, of course, far from attributing this success solely to the score.” After the first performance, he went out to dinner with Debussy.Stravinsky made three orchestral suites from The Firebird music. The first, in 1916, was followed by a version for smaller orchestra in 1919. A third suite appeared in 1945.


The story of the ballet concerns the young Prince Ivan hot in pursuit of the Firebird, finally capturing her in the garden of the ogre Kashchei. She begs him to set her free and gives him a magic feather when he does so. Ivan observes the dances of the captive princesses and is himself captured by the ogre, who tries to turn Ivan into a stone. But Ivan waves the magic feather, summoning the Firebird, who then reveals how to kill the ogre. This done, the princesses are freed and Ivan marries their leader, with the blessing of the Firebird. According to Stravinsky, Ivan succeeds “because he yielded to pity, a wholly Christian notion which dominates the imagination and the ideas of the Russian people.”


~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2014.