A New Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei for the Mozart Requiem
In embarking upon a reimagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem, particularly the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, Gregory Spears demonstrates a meticulously nuanced recognition of history, musical diversity and an intrinsic respect for liturgical traditions. Mozart’s Requiem, enshrouded in mystery and marred by the tragedy of the composer’s untimely demise, leaves us with an elusive, albeit passionate, skeleton of musical intentions. Thus, the challenges and liberties of concluding such a storied work have captivated composers and musicians for centuries.
Upon analysis, Spears’ endeavor into this timeless work does not seek to emulate the stylistic essence of Mozart or his contemporaries. His work instead reflects a deep-seated appreciation for the versatility and eclecticism inherent in church music, bridging epochs of musical history from Bach to minimalist patterns of the modern era. Spears said of his work:
While researching Mozart’s Requiem, I came across a rare recording by conductor Eugen Jochum from 1955. On the recording, the traditional Mozart/Süssmayr completion was performed as part of a memorial service in Vienna. This historical recording — which interpolated organ improvisations and chanted texts into the musical fabric — was a reminder that a Requiem, when performed as a mass, invites music from different sources and time periods. Mozart’s work was itself highly influenced by earlier music and begins with a conspicuous borrowing from Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. While my new music does not sound like Mozart, it is written in a manner that pays homage to the juxtaposition of old and new styles apparent in Mozart’s late work and much of the liturgical music of the period. One of the enduring stories concerning the Requiem was that the composer’s wife, Constanze, gave Süssmayr some musical “scraps” left by her husband to help the young composer write the missing movements. In homage to this myth, I have incorporated two cadential fragments from Süssmayr’s completion into the end of my Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Are these short passages possibly Mozart’s last writings, or are they Süssmayr’s invention? Our inability to answer such questions generates passionate debate concerning the Requiem and its fragmentary nature.
In the formation of his Sanctus, there's a deliberate departure from the arguably ostentatious rendering by Süssmayr. Spears opts for an opening that whispers of impending revelation, entwining the choir in turbulent, soft-spoken tones. This quieter, contemplative inception invokes a spiritual and emotional anticipation, acting as a prelude to the introspective voyage through the subsequent movements.
The Benedictus, painted with slow-evolving harmonies and minimalist string patterns, delivers a tranquility and peace that seems forged through trials and temporal understanding, embodying a spiritual serenity that transcends epochs, perhaps an auditory glance into eternal rest. Spears’ decision to embed cadential fragments from Süssmayr’s completion into this section and the Agnus Dei stands as an homage, whether to the myths surrounding Mozart’s last written notes or as a subtle nod to the historical debates surrounding the Requiem’s completion.
Moving to the Agnus Dei, Spears shapes a visceral auditory experience with ascending, mournful triplets over a canvas of dark, relentless harmonic repetitions from the choir. It speaks to a solemnity and spiritual gravitas that addresses the universality of human apprehension towards mortality and the afterlife.
The philosophical question surrounding the "correct" approach to completing Mozart’s Requiem will, undoubtedly, persist indefinitely. Süssmayr’s version, with its familiar Mozartian aura, might appeal to the purists. Meanwhile, Spears’ completion — a rich tapestry woven from countless threads across music history, offering a simultaneous glimpse into the past, present, and beyond — invites listeners to traverse a multi-dimensional spiritual and musical journey.
~ Kenneth Bean
Georg and Joyce Albers-Schonberg Assistant Conductor
Princeton Symphony Orchestra