Hearing Mozart’s Requiem at the Proms

Last night I saw Mozart’s Requiem at the Proms at the Albert Hall, and a big orchestral piece best suits that imposing Victorian hall. I’ve listened to Mozart’s Requiem before on record, but I’d never heard it life. Evidently BBC listeners voted it their favourite Mozart piece—even though he didn’t write much of it and many of his others pieces, not least his operas, are full of joy and exquisite tunes. It may be their favourite because of death giving it extra depth or because of the myths that surround it.

I heard about the myths at a PreProm talk. Every year I mean to go to the Proms, and most years I fail. But I find the whole experience—not least standing crammed into the Arena—exhilarating.  The Prommers are very serious about music and, you feel, knowledgeable. I think—probably romantically rather than accurately–that the greatest orchestras in the world love to come to play at the Proms because it’s such an enthusiastic, kind, supportive, and knowledgeable audience. Mind you, many look mad: one man with a long grey beard and bald head was dressed in orange and yellow Lycra. And I made the mistake of going through a door that led me to the front of the Arena, and when I went to take a space a man said “Excuse me, mate, these places are all taken.” These core Prommers, the people who buy season tickets and go to every Prom, are clearly exclusive.

I arrived early—about 5.45—thinking that a combination of Mozart’s Requiem and Clarinet Concerto would be popular, and I learnt that they now have a new system. At about 5.30 a woman starts going down the queue giving everybody a numbered ticket, and once you have one you can go away for half an hour and then return to your place in the queue. This is designed, I guess, to let people to go to the PreProm talk. So once I had my ticket I did so, although at first I had to listen through headphones sitting on the stairs of the Royal College of Music. Most of the talk was about the many mysteries that surround the Requiem.

Mozart wrote it in the last month of his life and was working on it the day he died on 5 December 1791 when he was 35 years old. One myth is that the Requiem was commissioned by an unknown person, with the implication that the unknown person may have been death himself commissioning the piece for Mozart’s own funeral. The experts at the PreProm talk were asked if Mozart knew he was writing his own Requiem. Their answer was that he probably didn’t when he started but probably did by the end. Another great belief about Mozart, held even by Wagner, is that his music was fully formed in his head and that he wrote it straight down. In Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus Mozart dictates the Requiem to Salieri, which is wrong and absurd but adds, one of the experts said, to the aura around the piece, making it still more interesting.

Mozart wrote probably about two thirds of the Requiem. He wrote most, perhaps all, of the first two parts, the Introitus and the Kyrie,(both of which are repeated at the end) and perhaps none of the fifth and sixth parts, the Sanctus and Benedictus. The piece was completed by his pupil Süssmayr, with him following scraps and sketches for some of the movements. The Agnus Dei sounds very much like Mozart. Various other people have completed the work following different ideas, but it’s the Süssmayr that has come to be thought of as “the version.” (Süssmayr signed the piece “Mozart,” but he wasn’t an effective forger as he dated it 1792—after Mozart was dead.)

After the talk I was excited to hear the piece, and it held my attention for all its 50 minutes. One of the four soloists, the bass, was sick, and so somebody stood in for him “at very short notice.” Unfortunately the bass was also scheduled to sing the first piece on the programme, Per Questa Bella Mano, and it was underwhelming. But the conductor, Ivan Fischer (a great Mozart conductor evidently), gave him a big hug and the audience sounded rapturous. Akos Acs then played the Clarinet Concerto on a basset clarinet, and I know every note well. The concerto fits with the Requiem because it too was written just before Mozart died. Knowing that, I couldn’t hear any signs of death approaching. Indeed, the first and last movements seem particularly jolly, and the middle slow movement just beautiful.

Acs got what may have been the biggest cheer of the evening when he played a Klezmer encore.

One of the important features of the Requiem is its instrumentation: there are no flutes, oboes or clarinets but rather two basset horns and two bassoons, making for low sonorities. Another strange feature is the solo played by a tenor trombone, which I found compelling; its significance is that the German Bible refers to the “last trombone” rather than the “last trumpet.” The Requiem sounded to me neither particularly religious nor particularly mournful, and I cycled home feeling exalted, vowing to listen to the Requiem again, go more to the Proms, and go to more classical music concerts generally.




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