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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Music /  Intrigue and murder mystery wrapped up in a requiem
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Thursday, October 27,2011

Intrigue and murder mystery wrapped up in a requiem

Mozart’s final piece is shrouded in mystery

By Peter Alexander

A reclusive count living in a remote castle.

A suspected poisoning. A mysterious messenger. A grieving widow. A forged date and signature.

A LeCarré spy thriller? No, it’s Mozart’s Requiem, the greatest mystery story in classical music — and the main work on the next Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) concert, Oct. 28-29 in Denver and Boulder (details: j.mp/BCOShows).

The performance, under the direction of music director Bahman Saless, will also feature Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, with soloists Szilvia Schranz, soprano; Leah Creek, mezzo-soprano; Joel Burcham, tenor; and Matthew Singer, bass.

You may know the legend: A mysterious stranger showed up at Mozart’s door, asking the composer to write a Requiem for an unknown patron. Although he was overworked with other commissions, Mozart needed the income.

As fall turned to winter, Mozart worked ever more feverishly to complete the work. Eventually he became convinced that he was writing his own Requiem, and even that he was being poisoned. Indeed, he died before finishing the score, which had to be completed by one of his students.

This account is more or less true, but with important gaps. The commission, mysterious as it was, came from one Count Walsegg, a music-loving nobleman of modest talent who enjoyed passing off works of major composers as his own. He wanted to perform “his” Requiem in memory of his young wife, who had recently died — which provides the reason for his anonymity.

And while it is true that Mozart died before completing the score, there is no evidence that he was poisoned — by Salieri or anyone else. The score was finished by Mozart’s pupil Franz Xavier Sssmayr, who then forged Mozart’s signature so that the Requiem could be delivered to the count, and presented by Mozart’s widow, as the master’s last completed work.

The ruse was so successful that details of the commission and completion of the Requiem were suppressed well into the 19th century. Suspicions were raised about authorship of the score, but it was not until the early 20th century that the facts began to emerge, and some details have only recently been brought to light.

For example, we now know that several people other than Sssmayr had a hand in completing the work. And the legend that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave is true, but his death did not go unnoticed.

Portions of the Requiem — the sections that were nearest completion when Mozart died — were played at a memorial service held in Vienna’s St. Michael’s Cathedral five  in Vienna’s St. Michael’s Cathedral five days after the composer’s death. Many of Vienna’s musical elite attended, including Salieri.

More recently, growing dissatisfaction with Sssmayr’s completion has led scholars and musicians to provide “improved” versions of the Requiem — at least seven of which are available on CD.

For the BCO performance, Saless has chosen the version by pianist and scholar Robert Levin, created in 1993. Among other contributions, Levin included material not found in most other versions: a fugue on the word “Amen,” based on a short sketch by Mozart.

“We chose the Levin version because we love to expose our audience to new adventures,” Saless says. “And it is a great privilege to be able to discuss intricacies with Mr. Levin.

“He is a great performer as well as a scholar. Because he knows Mozart’s style from the inside, he brought a remarkable insight and sensitivity to his revision of the Requiem.”

The second concert of the BCO season, the program is titled “Piety.” In addition to Mozart, it features Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings, RV 127, and the Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré.

Saless makes it clear that — unlike the Mozart — there is no mystery to the other two pieces.

“I chose Vivaldi and Fauré to introduce the ‘cast’ to the audience,” he says.

“You hear first the orchestra in the Vivaldi, then the choir in the Fauré, and then both ensembles together in the Requiem.

“The Vivaldi concerto was one of my favorite childhood pieces that made me fall in love with Baroque music.”

And the Fauré Cantique, written when the composer was 19, is “a beautiful little hymn arranged for chorus and strings by John Rutter,” Saless says. “Performing this allows us to showcase the purity of the Ars Nova voices.”

And it completes an intriguingly diverse program, with the cheerful energy of Vivaldi, the intimate sweetness of Fauré, and the majesty and mystery of Mozart’s Requiem: a triple bill and no poison.

Peter Alexander will discuss the piece and its history at 7 p.m. before each performance.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

On the Bill

Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Ars Nova Singers perform Mozart’s Requiem and more on Friday, Oct. 28, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. For tickets and more information, visit j.mp/t0HB6g. The show also plays at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder on Saturday, Oct. 29. Tickets are $25. For tickets and more information, visit j.mp/tfiA07.

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