Looking behind the Mozart myths

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A book by a music professor at the University of Sheffield has won a major award in the United States.

Simon Keefe’s Mozart Requiem: Reception, Work, Completion has received the Marjorie Weston Emerson award from the Mozart Society of America as the best book published in 2011-12.

A teacher and researcher on late 18th-century music, especially Mozart, he explores the famously unfinished work from the point of view of the myths that have grown up around the writing of it.

One was that Mozart wrote it for his own funeral but didn’t live long enough, another that there was a rehearsal of the Requiem on the day before he died and he broke down in tears at the very point of the Lacrimosa. “It’s the perfect story - Lacrimosa and real tears - but we will never know if that is right or not,” says Prof Keefe.

“While other scholars have been trying to iron out the truth from the fiction, what’s interesting to me is the way we value these stories. I am looking at how the myths have affected how people respond to the work.

“The facts are basic. He probably worked on it for six weeks and would have regarded it as just one of his regular commissions,” continues Keefe. “Those basic facts have been embellished but that doesn’t bother me.”

The Requieum was completed by one of his assistants, Franz Süssmayr, at the behest of Mozart’s wife, Constanze, who needed a source of income to support herself and her two children. It had to be completed to get the full fee. “She sent it off and tried to pass it off as Mozart’s work, knowing she was dealing with a reclusive count and it is not clear if he knew or cared it was not Mozart’s work.”

Further speculation surrounds the fact that it wasn’t published for eight years. Did Constanze realise that its value would increase as Mozart’s reputation grew after his death?

Prof Keefe has studied the original score to identify how much was in Mozart’s handwriting.

And the myth-making goes on. “There’s a Requieum scene in the film, Amadeus, and Mozart is seen dictating it to Salieri who in reality didn’t come anywhere near the work,” he says. “From the point of view of the film, I like that.”

Prof Keefe has now embarked on a biography of Mozart in Vienna in the last decade of his life, mostly researched at the British Library but it may entail visits to Saltburg which he does periodically as a life member of the Academy of Mozart Research.

“I am looking at him as a performance as well composer, He was an outstanding pianistand how did that affect what he wrote. It is focused on the music and the intersection between performance, expression and the compositions he left behind.”