Wouldn’t many of us vain humans like a memorial to be remembered by? The most obvious example is a tombstone somewhere but if one is lucky enough to be a composer, and a good at that, then one’s own Requiem Mass is the perfect answer. It may not be a Requiem in the strict sense of the word. Mahler’s tenth symphony (unfinished) is one supreme example of a swansong. For true music loving Lucchesi it’s Puccini’s “Turandot” where the true heart finishes at the death of Liù (although Puccini did also write an official, very short but beautiful Requiem).
There are so many unfinished swansongs that those composers who are able to sing out their very last notes on the translucent lake leading to the beyond are truly lucky. Perhaps were their swansongs meant to be unfinished? Could Bruckner really add anything to that incredible adagio of his ninth and last symphony, for example? And Schubert’s own “unfinished” symphony – is it really that unfinished?
These are truly metaphysical questions but then I re-read that o so touching letter by one of Constanze’s friends on the death of God’s own musical reincarnation when, with Sussmayr (Eybler, the preferred completer had given up the task) at his side, Amadeus silently mouthed the ending of what became, in his inner consciousness, his own Requiem.
And yet, as that great choirmaster Bacci reminded us introducing yesterday’s performance of this greatest of all swansongs which is a plea to human frailty and a cry to what Adorno described as the absolute scandal of death, Mozart did put a date “1792” on his last written manuscript page, fully believing that he would finish the work, note-perfect to the last bar. After all, if completed his dear wife, who Wolfgang loved with a love that few of us could ever hope to emulate, would get the other half of those guilder promised by the mysterious nobleman whose identity was only discovered as recently as 1964.
(Recently discovered photo of Mozart’s widowed wife, far left, in 1840)
That Requiem indeed was destined to commemorate Count Walsegg’s beautiful young wife who died aged only twenty. A double-heartbreak if there ever was one!
But let’s return to Bacci and his advice to just listen and let this music transport us to a world we can only ever hope to imperfectly envision through the miasma of life.
This was the programme, part of the great season of the Sagra Musical Lucchese:
For one hour we were immersed in music which I almost felt was a pleading for what remains still beautiful in our world and for what this planet may most be remembered for – if there is any supernatural being who would bother to remember it…..
Three strands reunited me to the wonderful concert I’d been privileged to hear a couple of evenings previously. First, the miraculous acoustics of the gorgeous church of the Servite order in Lucca. Second, that incredible Kyrie fugue in Mozart’s Requiem with the same subject of Handel’s Messiah’s “and with his stripes we are healed. “ (Mozart, of course, was a great lover of Handel’s music to which he’d been introduced at one of his friend Baron van Swieten’s evenings. The greatest contrapuntal-melodist, Wolfgang, was encouraged by his wife to write more fugues specially for her. Who ever said that Constanze was just a frivolous butterfly! The third strand was that I didn’t realise that Colombini himself was such a good violinist!
Two of my “caves” were quickly dispelled. The large chorus from Pisa University, around two hundred strong, sang as one highly disciplined body and their size allowed for the most poignant gradations of sounds especially when a smaller group of female voices sang those melting words “salve me fons pietatis”.
The “Dies Irae” (how unfortunate that today’s indulgent Catholic church tries to diminish the terrors of hell which is truly death in life as much as it is life in death) was taken at a fulminating pace but so beautifully ordered and dramatic was the choir singing under the baton of Stefano Barandoni that the entire audience was stunned into a terrifying stillness at its conclusion.
Just listen to this from last night:
The second cave relates to Sussmayr’s conclusion. For the first time I didn’t find this a problem. The stylistic homogeneity of the whole performance convinced me that Sussmayr was closer to Mozart’s intentions than Alfano ever was to Puccini’s – even if there are at least ten different more recent re-workings to date……
I doubt any other work has been performed so often in the tragic moments of our history. It was performed in 1849 on the occasion of Chopin’s death. It was performed in 1964 to commemorate President Kennedy’s assassination. Of course, it was performed in 1991 in Vienna’s St Stephen’s cathedral to remember Mozart’s death 55 minutes after midnight on December 5th, 1791. The Requiem was also performed in the ruins of Sarajevo’s great concert Hall by Zubin Mehta in 1994. Perhaps that was the most moving performance of all.
Last night’s performance, however, moved me immensely. Everything came together in it, technical skill, performing inspiration, a quartet of perfectly matched soloists all in top form, a great, incisive orchestra and a superb choir which received the loudest cheers.
It was just another example of how lucky I am to be living so near to Italy’s most heart-fleetingly musical city.
And what did Mozart think about the mystery of death. Already, in that ill-fated visit to Paris, when his mother died and he was forced to write for the instrument he then had little love for but which was to inspire his great life-enhancing final opera, there was a strange premonition:
A flute and harp pursue each other’s flight:
like humming-bird and bee they seek the tongue
of sweetness, inner calyx of love’s night,
and suck a phrase unheard, a song unsung.
Around, insidious plants hide in the dusk,
with putrefying smells and flesh-scarred thorns;
yet here is argent silk and scent of musk
that lighten darkness, draw smiles on scorns.
Dark marble wraps the frozen chapel wall,
a lover’s name enshrined upon a plaque
seducing phrase that glides before its fall,
entwirls, roulades, cascades and then grows slack.
Young man, your head is filled with golden dreams
before your life collapses at its seams.
The saccharine picture-postcard Mozart must too be demolished even if that ghastly film did, at the very least, introduce new audiences to the closest music we are ever likely to approach God with:
A chocolate portrait is what I’ve become,
complete with powdered hair and candied glance;
such gorgeous truffles (yet too sweet for some)
delicious invites to dusk’s carnal dance.
Was I too early or was it just chance
that I escaped from that exquisite slum?
Court posers tremble to be overcome
while my concertos sing and life-enhance.
They’re taking cash on my unfinished scores,
my serenades play at the restaurant
and corporations and effetes embrace
the shade of him whom god alone adores.
Meanwhile, the solemn sound of death’s calm chant
vibrates through worlds of curled perukes and lace.
No, no, no. Perhaps the closest I ever got to the essence of Mozart’s mystery was on a night train journey I took in 1999 just before the new millennium was to open:
SALZBURG – MUNCHEN BY TRAIN
Red moon through windows,
lanterns by the farmhouse,
unmeasured night plains.
Her face reflected
against a giant’s circle:
hair caressing glass.
A dragon combs night
apparelled with galaxies
of cosmic jewels.
He follows me still
across primeval forests:
so large this blood moon
Is that a false light
beyond the lairs of eagles
beyond gods eyelids?
The year’s shortest day
burns unpassioned behind peaks
of infinite snow.
Could green ever be
the colour of death’s membrane
the shade of life?
Seized on night’s mantle
this steel-fanged journey has no
beginning no end.
But let’s leave the last word to Mozart himself:
As death (when closely considered) is the true goal of our life, I have made myself so thoroughly acquainted with this good and faithful friend of man, that not only has its image no longer anything alarming to me, but rather something most peaceful and consolatory; and I thank my heavenly Father that He has vouchsafed to grant me the happiness, and has given me the opportunity, (you understand me,) to learn that it is the key to our true felicity. I never lie down at night without thinking that (young as I am) I may be no more before the next morning dawns. And yet not one of all those who know me can say that I ever was morose or melancholy in my intercourse with them. I daily thank my Creator for such a happy frame of mind, and wish from my heart that every one of my fellow-creatures may enjoy the same.