By Dennis Keene


Mozart’s early years were spent in the utterly charming town of Salzburg, filled with rococo churches, palaces, and the surrounding mountain terrain. Here he spent much of his time composing church music. In 1779 Mozart was named court organist and composer at the great Cathedral of Salzburg, and it is believed that his Coronation Mass was composed for his first Easter Sunday Mass there. Salzburg is filled with beautiful, ornate churches rich in decorative detail, but modest in size. In contrast, the Cathedral is an immense, light-filled building, clearly the center of the city’s religious world. It is easy to picture the Coronation Mass taking place here amidst  the festivity of an Easter Sunday Mass.

During his years in Salzburg, Mozart composed at least 17 short masses, Missae brevae. They were designed to provide the necessary Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Angus Dei in no more than 30 minutes. In my opinion, the Coronation Mass is the most inspired of the whole group, and represents the peak of his Salzburg period sacred compositions.

The Kyrie begins with great formal majesty, befitting a most solemn and important occasion. This first choral section is very concise – just five measures. It is followed by a brief orchestral transition, filled with quiet joy. In the middle section, Mozart reveals beauty and humanity in a ravishing duet for soprano and tenor solos. The chorus returns for the third section, repeating their majestic music. The movement ends quietly and peacefully.

Immediately follows the Gloria, marked “con spirito.” The brilliance of this Gloria practically flies off the page. This is one of the most inspired Glorias ever composed - perhaps the best short one in the whole German-Austrian tradition. Mozart contrasts enormously vivacious music for chorus and orchestra with short sections for the solo quartet. All of this is combined in a non-stop whirlwind of energy and joy.

Next is the Credo, typically the longest Mass movement. This one is marked “Allegro molto – very lively.” The violins play a non-stop, perpetual motion series of 16th notes. The chorus proclaims the dogmatic text in vigorous but grounded chords. Like the Gloria, this Credo is a highly ceremonial one, perfect for the grandeur of Easter. Just as the music cascades through the words “descendit de coelis – He descended from Heaven,” it halts most suddenly. The solo quartet comes in Adagio (a much slower tempo) and in a deeply serious mood as they announce the earthly life of the Savior. The Crucifixus (Crucifixion) and passus (death) provide some of the most moving moments of the Mass. The deep seriousness is immediately broken with the return of the perpetual motion music of the beginning, set to the words “Et resurrexit – And He was resurrected.” Notice the bubbling joy of Mozart’s setting of “Et in Spiritum Sanctum – I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The movement ends with great vigor and elevation.

The Credo is followed by the Sanctus, perhaps the moment of grandest ceremony in a mass. The sanctuary is filled with clouds of incense as the chorus and orchestra sing forth the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The Osanna “Hosanna in the highest” follows with great speed and vivaciousness. A moment of tranquility comes with the Benedictus for solo quartet. This one combines Austrian grace and charm with tenderness and, at times, profound beauty. The Osanna returns for only 12 measures. Then, surprisingly, Mozart continues with a reprise of the Benedictus, followed by a more complete Osanna.

The most celebrated movement of this Mass is the Agnus Dei. Its fame is owed to the inspired, serenely beautiful soprano solo. This is one of those moments in Mozart’s music where time stops and we are all captivated by the sublime beauty of his music. The principal melody reminds opera lovers of the great soprano aria, “Dove sono,” in The Marriage of Figaro, composed a few years later.

As the Agnus Dei aria concludes, the movement moves seamlessly into musical material from the middle section of the Kyrie. The full solo quartet gradually enters this musical realm. The full chorus and orchestra conclude the Mass with a jubilant Dona Nobis Pacem “Grant us peace.”



In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna where he spent the final ten years of his life. This was no small town, like Salzburg, but the largest German-speaking city in the world and the capital of Austria. Here he would interact with some of the most famous and powerful people in the world.

The Requiem of Mozart is one of the most famous musical compositions ever written. Its fame comes not only from the music itself, but also from the story of its composition. There is hardly another piece of classical music that has been the source of so much speculation of the details of its creation. If you wish to read all the various theories, it’s online, for example

Here are the facts as we know them: in the last year of Mozart’s life, he was approached by an anonymous man to compose a Requiem. It was later revealed that the man was an intermediary of count Franz von Walsegg.  It is assumed that von Walsegg intended to pass the Requiem off as his own, since he had done that with other pieces. Mozart needed the money dearly, and began composing this Requiem immediately. Mozart became ill and eventually died with the Requiem unfinished. His wife, Constanze, wanted to get the Requiem secretly finished as quickly as possible, so that she might pass the work off as Mozart’s and get the remaining fee. She turned first to Joseph von Eybler, who worked on it for a while, then gave up. She turned next to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who completed the work in what we would now call its “traditional” version. Over the centuries, and particularly in the last few decades, there have been several attempts to complete the work in a way that might be superior to Süssmayr’s version. I have seen and heard most of these other versions, and, personally, I still strongly prefer Süssmayr’s “traditional” version. For me, the ‘traditional” version of Mozart’s Requiem remains one of the great creations of Western Music.

 The Introitus begins with one of the most extraordinary openings in music. Against the gentle rocking of bass line and string chords, a lonely bassoon enters first, followed by a basset horn (a low-pitched, mellow-toned clarinet), and then the other basset horn and bassoon. How different a view of a Requiem Mozart has than Fauré, whose Requiem we performed last month. Fauré had no doubt of a blissful paradise waiting for all of us. Not so Mozart! Here, in this opening, we face death. And our very human reaction to this music is one of profound sadness: bleak, alone and uncertain. The unstoppable power and force of death comes forte in measure 7, followed by the choral entrance which is accompanied by the off-beat sighs in the violins. The music gradually evolves into greater tenderness at the words “luceat eis – let perpetual light shine upon them.” Then we arrive in B-flat major, a much more luminous key than the opening D Minor. Here the soprano soloist intones an ancient Gregorian chant melody amidst a luscious string background. Suddenly the orchestral music becomes jagged in the Baroque manner of a Handel chorus, and the chorus enters with the soprano section repeating the Gregorian chant theme. This segues into a section recalling the material of measure 8, with the violin off-beat sighing and the original choral melody in the basses. But here Mozart adds a new melody, first given to the altos. It is made up of a series of highly expressive 16th notes. This section increases greatly in intensity and sonority, finally coming to a halt quietly in the dominant key.

This continues attacca in the Kyrie, which is a very bold, emotionally powerful fugue. Mozart uses two principal themes here, and the fugue goes through many degrees of intensity, before coming to a conclusion of elemental power.

The next six movements belong to what is called the Sequence. In a church funeral, this would have occurred later in the service. But in a concert setting, the Kyrie leads immediately to the first movement of the Sequence, the famous Dies irae. This depiction of the Day of Wrath is wildly impassioned, evoking the fateful doom Mozart earlier created in the Commendatore scenes of Don Giovanni.

The first quartet follows, the Tuba mirum (awesome trumpet). Mozart has constructed a virtual opera scene here with four vocal characters. It begins with arguably the most famous trombone solo in classical music. The bass soloist enters with the same theme and continues with great seriousness. Suddenly the tenor comes in, and the whole dramatic terrain changes. This is an impassioned plea for mercy. The alto’s music is more stoic, depicting a judge who will avenge all sins with the flick of a finger. A glowing humanity appears in the soprano’s entrance in B-flat major. Finally the quartet sings together and the movement ends with profound beauty and hope.

The next movement, Rex tremendae, is also operatic in scope - vast and panoramic. The orchestra sets forth a grand Baroque gesture in octaves, an introduction to the choral summons to the immense, almighty King (“Rex”). After a fortissimo declamation by chorus, winds, trumpets, trombones, and timpani (“Great majestic King of awe and fear!”), there follows a more lyric section. Here the chorus and winds inhabit one universe, and the dotted figurations of the strings another. This all comes to an intense climax. Then, abruptly, everything changes: it’s piano now, and the chorus pleads “Save me, O fountain of mercy!” It is amazing how these few measures of quiet, intense pleading so perfectly balance the grand gesture of the entire rest of the movement.

Many professional musicians would choose the Recordare as their favorite movement of the piece. It is certainly one of Mozart’s most sublime creations, with so many contrasting emotions and such grace, nuance, and internal lightness! Much of the piece evokes a serenity that seems to float. Each contrasting section follows another with infinite subtlety and smoothness. And, through it all, the piece has a profundity and humanity of a quality that only Mozart could conceive.

The Confutatis is another dramatic movement. Against the pummeling ostinato of the strings, the tenors and basses cry out that the damned will be consigned to flames. This is brilliantly contrasted with the pure tones of the sopranos and altos (“Call me one of the blessed ones.”) It is repeated in another key, and a new section appears, one of great internal intensity. The harmonies are dark and mysterious, and the music seems to sink lower and lower, finally settling on a quiet F Major chord. We think it is over. But not yet. After a pause, a single unexpected chord in the string indicates that the story goes on.

And it does in the Lacrimosa (The Day of Weeping.) What an extraordinary opening Mozart has composed here! The weeping is piano with just the violins and violas. The chorus comes in with the principal melody for two very poignant, sad measures. Then little by little they build up, higher and higher, louder and louder, with the words “The guilty person shall rise from the ashes to be judged.” These first eight measures were all that appear in Mozart’s manuscript. The rest of this movement was completed by Süssmayr. I find Süssmayr’s contribution superb: powerful and absolutely consistent with Mozart’s opening. I also find the ending perfect. It is quite long and substantial. But, remember, it is not just the ending of this movement, but all six movements which form the Sequence section of the Requiem.

The Offertory, composed by Mozart and Süssmayr, is in two movements. The first, Domine Jesu is a highly charged movement of quick contrasts and sudden outbursts. The orchestra parts are often jagged and offbeat. When the tenors sing “Ne absorbeat eas tartarus – that Hell may not swallow them up” their theme is angular, with the orchestra parts in fast octave 16th notes. A topsy-turvy world is depicted. A brief solo quartet brings momentary calm. But this is dashed at the “Quam olim Abrahae,” a vigorous choral fugue with more jagged orchestral accompaniment. The Hostias is one of my favorite movements. Against a gently-rocking string accompaniment, the chorus sings a melody of extraordinary beauty. The utter simplicity and calmness of this movement is a perfect contrast to the frenetic energy of the Domine Jesu. At the end of this piece the Quam olim Abrahae is repeated to end the Offertory.

The Sanctus was probably all Süssmayr’s work. But it is perfectly consistent with other Mozart Sanctus movements. And its bright, ceremonial D Major music is perfect at this point of the Requiem. A fugal Osanna is also perfectly in keeping with the style of the time, and is optimistic and brief.

There are musicians who criticize the Benedictus, I feel, simply because it too is believed to be the work of Süssmayr. But I think it is one of the most beautiful Benedictus movements in the German-Austrian Classical repertory. Is not the opening melody gorgeous? And the limpid violin melody which floats above the quartet? I admire greatly the orchestral interludes which occur twice in this quartet and seem to recall the musical material of the “et lux perpertua” in the first movement of the Requiem, thus tying together the entire Requiem shortly before its concluding movement. A repeat of the Osanna follows, now in B-flat major.

We are now at the final movement, the Agnus Dei, probably composed by Süssmayr. In my opinion, the orchestration here is flawed and needs a bit a tinkering by the conductor to properly balance it. But I find the musical material quite inspiring: the deeply-felt forte pleas of the chorus balanced by the exceptionally tender pianissimo sections. The pleas mount to a heart-felt summit before stopping on a dominant F-Major chord. This leads us to the Lux aeterna. Here Süssmayr brought back music from Mozart’s first movement and set it to the new words. There is some evidence that this was Mozart’s intent. We will never know. Nonetheless, it works. It provides a strong bookend to the Requiem. And curiously, this repeated music seems even more meaningful after the huge journey we have gone through. The final fugue seems to build even more powerfully this time. And at the final cadence - which contains no third in the chord, just a powerful, bare, Gothic sound, neither major nor minor – we have come to the end of our human journey contemplating our mortality and the question of life after death. The answer given here is definite: it is unresolved.