Mozart Myth Making: Requiem in D minor

18 March 2024

For centuries, Mozart’s last ever composition, his Requiem, has been shrouded in myth and speculation. While we look forward to Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Chorus’s performance of the piece at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre on 21 April, we explore some of the most popular mistaken rumours surrounding the piece’s composition.

Myth 1: A mysterious messenger at the door.

When Mozart was approached in 1791 to compose a Requiem, a mass for the dead, it was rumoured that he was visited by a mysterious, hooded ‘grey’ man. At the time, Mozart’s health was failing and he was increasingly superstitious. Upon accepting the anonymous commission, it was rumoured that he convinced himself that death was looming and that he was composing his own requiem mass. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess, despite his widow, Constanze, insisting that it was the case.

Myth 2: A deadly rivalry?

Ever since Mozart’s death, the rivalry between him and fellow composer Antonio Salieri has been well documented. As two of Vienna’s most prominent court composers a certain competitiveness between the two may well have been the case, however the idea that Salieri was murderously jealous of Mozart has been promoted through the years by the plays Mozart and Salieri (1830) by Alexander Pushkin and Amadeus (1979) by Peter Shaffer.

In reality, Salieri was a talented and successful composer in his own right, respected in Vienna as the imperial court’s composer and as one of the most influential musicians in Europe. It doesn’t seem that they were close friends, but neither were they bitter enemies.

Myth 3: Questions of authenticity 

The 1984 film Amadeus (based on Shaffer’s play) has led many to believe that Salieri acted as Mozart’s scribe while he was bedridden with his final illness. Yet, by all accounts, Salieri wasn’t involved in the composition of the requiem.

This wasn't the first suggestion that Mozart had external help during the requiem’s composition process; an article published in 1825 questioned the authenticity of the work which ignited an unhelpful ‘requiem controversy’ debate in scholarly circles during the following years.

Myth 4: Mozart is poisoned by Salieri

The rumour that Salieri poisoned Mozart to rid him of his supremely talented rival circulated even during Salieri’s lifetime. Despite their rivalry, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Salieri wanted to kill Mozart or that he poisoned him.

The actual cause of Mozart’s death isn’t known, though hundreds of different theories have been proposed. Salieri did in fact visit Mozart’s bedside a few days before his death, attended the funeral procession and very likely conducted the Requiem’s premiere.

Myth 5: An undignified death

Mozart died on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35 having completed around two-thirds of the Requiem. The last music he ever composed was the first eight bars of the Requiem’s Lacrimosa, with the chilling last words that day of tears and mourning. Shortly after Mozart’s death, the Requiem was completed using his sketches by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

 Experience WNO’s rendition of Mozart’s renowned and poignant Requiem at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre during our Peace and Passion concert on Sunday April 21 at 7.30pm.