Variations on a Theme


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Looking for a change from your go-to classics? Take a cue from the LSM team as we recommend listening alternatives to the usual masterworks.

The masterwork:
Mozart’s Requiem, K626 (1791)

In the great tradition of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, W.A. Mozart’s Requiem K626 expresses humanity’s complex and troubled relationship with death and the afterlife. From the passionate throes of the Dies Irae to the gentle supplication of the Lacrimosa, the fourteen movements, scored for soloists, choir and orchestra, convey the poignancy and pathos of their sacred text.

In a macabre twist of fate, the Requiem would be the last work to ever cross Mozart’s writing desk — it remained unfinished upon the composer’s death late in 1791. The irony was too much to resist, and by early 1792 Viennese newspapers had published accounts of Mozart engaged in a feverish race to finish a work that would ultimately be his own undoing.

Only the first movement, Requiem aeternam, was completed by Mozart himself, most of the other movements existing only in the form of rough sketches. The task of completing the Requiem would eventually pass to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a former Mozart student, who was responsible for much of the dramatic orchestral scoring throughout the work. Authorship and intrigue aside, the Requiem continues to serve as the epitaph of a singular genius, while capturing the imaginations of audiences worldwide. Marc Wieser

Éric Champagne recommends…
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908)
Mozart & Salieri
Year written: 1897

Similarities: Based on a small Pushkin drama, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera recounts the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri while Mozart is working on his Requiem. The work is also quoted in a reduction for piano and clarinet at the time of Mozart’s death.

Differences: Although historically false, the idea that Salieri commissioned the Requiem from Mozart ignited creative minds, especially dramatist Peter Shaffer and filmmaker Milos Forman. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, Salieri goes so far as to poison Mozart. If this historical liberty serves to improve the lyrical drama, it outrageously defames Salieri’s character.

Essential Listening:
Rimsky-Korsakov: Mozart & Salieri
I Musici de Montréal, Yuli Turovsky
1994, Chandos

Paul E. Robinson recommends…
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 
Year written: 1893 

Similarities: Like Mozart’s Requiem, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was left unfinished at his death. Other unfinished works by great composers would include Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, Puccini’s Turandot, and Berg’s Lulu

Differences: Mozart’s Requiem is almost never performed as an unfinished torso. We usually hear it in the completion by Mozart’s friend and assistant Süssmayr. But in the case of both Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Ninth the pieces are thought to be complete as they are, even without their last two movements (Schubert) and last movement (Bruckner).

Essential Listening:
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded live in Vienna, May 1978
DG 00440 073 4395 (DVD) (2008)

Joseph So recommends…
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Messa di Requiem (sometimes also called the Manzoni Requiem, or now simply referred to as the Verdi Requiem)
Year written: First performance in Milan on May 22, 1874

Similarities: Both Mozart and Verdi’s requiems are religious works to be sure, each representing the very pinnacle of the creative powers of the composer. Both use the Latin liturgical text, with variations in the order and the choices. For example, Libera me, the most sublime moment in Verdi, is not in Mozart.

Differences: If the Mozart Requiem is spiritual, introverted, and curiously mysterious—especially surrounding the circumstances of its composition, the Verdi Requiem is positively operatic, extroverted, and some would even argue that it’s almost secular in the way Verdi uses the human voice.

Essential Listening:
Verdi: Requiem
Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Jussi Bjoernling, Giorgio Tozzi; Vienna Philharmonic/Fritz Reiner
Decca (1960)

Hear Mozart’s Requiem LIVE:
 » Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Nagano; February 22, 23 & 25
 » Orchestre symphonique de Québec/Slowik; with Karina Gauvin, Thomas Cooley; April 4


About Author

Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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