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Mozart's Requiem - his last, unfinished, work.

Battle Choral Society presents Mozart concert

The word requiem, translated as ‘rest in peace’, conjures a welcome rest after the travails of life and the pain of illness before death – but to an 18th century Catholic fundamentalist, it invokes deliverance from eternal damnation! On 29 November Battle Choral Society  delivers the anguished music of Mozart as he faced up to his own mortality, writes Chris Cormack.

Thought to be Mozart's death mask.

Musicologist Bruce MacIntyre describes Mozart as a “freethinking Catholic with a private relationship to God.” As a freemason and product of the Age of Enlightenment, Mozart’s beliefs might be less tinged with fire and brimstone, but he was increasingly agitated as he approached his death in 1791 and it showed in the requiem he was composing.

Dies irae – “The Day of Anger will dissolve the world in ashes…” – and Rex tremendae – “Oh King of tremendous majesty, who saves the worthy, save me!!” – how can you put these words to music without a judder of distress? Can the composing of a requiem actually hasten death itself? But no wonder, if a mysterious messenger, by some accounts masked, commissions the work from an anonymous benefactor, and your overwork and depression leads to illness and delirium – you can believe it is your own requiem which you compose!

Battle Choral Society (

1791 was an eventful year for Mozart, even if it had not been his final year. An interesting account of this is given on the Classic FM website. Is it coincidence that in this year he wrote all three of the works which I regard as my favourites, namely the Magic Flute, the Ave Verum motet and the Requiem?  Ave Verum foreshadows “aspects of the Requiem such as declamatory gesture, textures, and integration of forward- and backward-looking stylistic elements,” according to Christoph Wolff in his 1998 studies of Mozart’s Requiem.

To have completed and premiered the Magic Flute within six months of his death must surely show that Mozart was not totally obsessed by his premonition of death. The work is full of the zest for life and curiously secular in theme for someone contemplating death. Mozart even managed to squeeze in another opera in his final six months, La Clemenza di Tito, and in the final three months, found time and inclination to play pranks on Schickaneder during performances of the Magic Flute and to join his freemason friends to hear a lodge performance of his Kleine Freimaurer cantata as late as November.

Constanza Mozart - taking the waters while husband was overworked and depressed with money worries.

Although much is made of Mozart’s depression leading up to his illness, I could imagine that much of his problem may be accounted for by overwork, stress and the constant financial worries. There is a school of thought that his wife Constanza contributed greatly to his depression and money worries. For long stretches of the year, she was away in Baden taking the waters at the spa resort, and Mozart wrote to her frequently of his unhappiness at being alone and showing signs of jealousy that she might be giving flirtatious looks to gentlemen at the spa. If this was causing the depression, then it is significant that Constanza did not return home from Baden – it was resolved by Mozart joining her in Baden, even though he was so busy! Commentators allude to the fact that Constanza contributed the main part of what we know about Mozart’s life and suggest her biographical accounts were self-serving.

In April 1791, Mozart was still offering his services for free in order to secure a livelihood. Leopold Hofmann, a 61-year-old composer who held the top job of Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, had become seriously ill, and Mozart wrote to the city magistrates, who controlled the jobs at St Stephen’s, suggesting that he stand in as an unpaid assistant, on the understanding that he take over as soon as the old man was gone. This was agreed and the job would have paid some 2,000 gulden a year, but Hofmann outlived Mozart by about two years. With this job the 35-year-old Mozart would have been financially secure for the rest of a much longer life and might have had a more dramatic influence on the whole future of church music.

Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s composition pupil, would have worked jointly on much of the music composed in 1792 in much the same way as artists worked in ‘schools’, with pupils rarely being credited for their contribution. It only became an issue when Mozart died without finishing the Requiem. It is noteworthy that widow Constanze passed the work on to Joseph von Eybler, rather than Süssmayr, for completion when it was clear that Mozart had left detailed instructions with Süssmayr as to how the work was to be completed. After doing some work von Eybler passed it back to Süssmayr.

John Langridge, music director.

The Battle Choral Society will also sing Mozart’s Misericordias Domini, K. 222, a superb six-minute sacred work that makes use of the Ode to Joy theme three times almost 50 years before Beethoven got near it! John Langridge, Battle’s music director, will also lead 40 professional musicians in playing Mozart’s 40th, the great G minor Symphony. The opening of this symphony is such a cliché that it is frequently to be heard on someone’s mobile ringtone. However, the pianist and music writer, Charles Rosen,  described it as “a work of passion, violence, and grief,” and others say it is “heroically tragic” and “written in blood.”

On 15 February 2015,  John Langridge will be conducting the Last Station Choral Singers, which should include many from Battle Choral Society, in a new eight-minute choral work dedicated to all the crews who served on light vessels and their families –  The Light Vessel by international musician Trevor Watts. This work was commissioned by Mary Hooper and Elise Liversedge as part of the development of a new art work called Last Station, located and dislocated, that takes its inspiration from the history of the manned light vessels around the UK from 1732-1989.

Vocal foghorning/the Royal Sovereign BLAST

As part of this Last Station event, you can spend an afternoon learning the intricacies of becoming a human foghorn with a scratch choir led by singer and composer Sammy Hurden and accompanied by experimental musician Nick Weekes. This is a fun workshop for all singers of any experience and first-time singers.

Battle Choral Society presents Mozart Requiem: Christ Church, Silchester Rd, St. Leonards-on-Sea TN38 0JB,  Saturday 29 November, 7.30pm. Tickets £15.00 + booking fee if applicable. Box Office: 01424 870862/22187.

On 15 February 2015, BLAST out your foghorns in memory of the Royal Sovereign foghorn from the roof of the De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill-on-Sea TN40 1DP. To participate contact Elise or Mary.

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Posted 10:43 Saturday, Nov 22, 2014 In: Music & Sound

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