The Mozart Requiem – 7 Reasons Why Mozart’s Requiem became so famous

Mozart wrote hundreds of operas, concertos, songs and sonatas. Many of those compositions had a huge impact on classical music and later eras. But none of his works was surrounded by so many myths and legends as his last composition: the Requiem.

Mozart has always been one of my favorite composers.  As a teenager, I spent hours practicing his Clarinet Concerto or his Clarinet Quintet. When I thought about starting this blog, it was clear that I wanted to write an article on one of Mozart’s major compositions.

Doing some research on different Mozart works, it became obvious that not composition such as “the Magic Flute”, “kleine Nachtmusik” or “the Marriage of Figaro” are getting the highest Google search volumes among Mozart’s pieces – no, by far it is his last work, the Requiem.

But have you ever wondered, why this is the case? Why are so many people interested in his first and last Requiem, which in large parts was not written by himself?

In this post, I would like to find answers to these questions.

# 1 The Requiem was Mozart’s last composition

Mozart died on December 5th, 1791 in Vienna.

In the last years before his death he especially focused on sacred music – among other pieces, he concluded his very well-known motet Ave verum corpus (K. 618) (June 1791) at this time.

In July 1791 – according to the report of Mozart’s wife Constanze [1] – an anonymous messenger contacted Mozart. He neither wanted to tell his name, nor the name of his principal. He ordered a requiem for the recently deceased wife of his client (more on this later on). A price was agreed and he paid an advance. At this time, Mozart finished the “Magic Flute” (premiered September 30th, 1791) and also received the honorable commission to compose the opera “La Clemenza di Tito” for the imperial coronation of Leopold II in Prague (September 6th, 1791).

Therefore, the work on the requiem remained undone at first.

Instead, Mozart composed the coronation opera under high pressure. And when he left Vienna to complete the opera in Prague by the end of August 1791, the stranger appeared again and exhorted Mozart. After returning from Prague, he began to complete the above mentioned Clarinet Concerto for Anton Stadler (premiered: October 16th, 1791) and finally devoted himself to his last work, the Requiem.

# 2 Mozart wrote the music for his own funeral

So – more or less – two full months remained for Mozart to work on the completion of the Requiem. Two months, in which he became sicker from day to day.

Nevertheless, according to his biographers, he worked with great enthusiasm on the completion of the composition – which is, by the way,  wonderfully illustrated in Miloš Forman’s film “Amadeus”.

According to statements of Constanze, Mozart appeared in these sick and feverish phases more and more delirious and interpreted the reappearance and admonition of the unknown deliveryman as a kind of messenger of death. As classicalfm put it: Mozart believed that he had been cursed to write a requiem for himself.

Whether this actually was true, is still being discussed controversially.

However, there are indications that a (fragmentary) premiere of the first two movements – Introitus and Kyrie – took place on the 10th of December , 1791 [1].

On this day, a memorial ceremony is said to have taken place in the St. Michael’s Church in Vienna, organized by Emanuel Schikaneder – a friend of the Mozart family. Today, a memorial tablet in this church recalls the event.

 #3 Only half of the Requiem was written by Mozart himself

Until his death, Mozart had only written the opening movement of the Introitus with all orchestral and vocal parts. The following Kyrie and most of the Sequenza (Dies irae – Confutatis) were only completed in vocals and bass, some additional passages were sketched.


TInforgraphic describing which parts of the requiem are written by Mozarthe last part of the movement, the Lacrimosa, broke off after eight bars and remained incomplete. The following two parts of the Offertorium were only drafted. Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio were completely missing.

Constanze, Mozart’s widow, was now facing a big problem: The couple had already received the advance (about 25 ducats) and she was unable to repay it, while being dependent on the residual money.

Therefore, she was very keen to ensure that the incomplete would be completed.

In the following she instructed Mozart’s student Joseph Eybler with the finalization. He worked on the orchestration of the third movement (from the Dies irae to Lacrimosa), but then passed the work back for unknown reasons.

The work was entrusted to another young composer and student of Mozart – Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

Based on the instrumentation of Eybler, he completed the orchestration of the Sequenza and the Offertorium. Furthermore, he added the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Finally, he extended the work by repeating the two opening movements, which were written by Mozart himself, in the so-called Communio. Here the two movements are underlayed with the text of the Lux aeterna – the  final part of a (traditional) requiem mass.

 While the additions of the Kyrie and Eybler’s instrumentation were entered directly into Mozart’s score, for the rest of the work Süßmayr transferred Mozart’s musical text and also Eybler supplements to a new manuscript paper.

Consequently, two scores were developed: the “working score”, which contained Mozart’s handwriting and Eybler’s additions and the so-called “delivery score“, the finalized version by Süßmayr. The delivery score was provided with a faked signature of Mozart (by Süßmayr), dated to 1792 and passed to the messenger for his anonymous client.

# 4 The Requiem: A commissioned composition

For several times you heard about a mysterious messenger and an anonymous client now. But who were actually the people, who comssioned the composition?

As we know today, Mozart composed the Requiem for Count Franz von Walsegg [1], who wanted to perform it in a memorial service for his deceased wife Anna, died very young a few month ago.

On this occasion, however, the work was not meant to be performed in Mozart’s name. The eccentric count was in the habit of purchasing works by renowned composers, copying them and performing and publishing them under his name.

When his wife died on February 17th, 1791 he wanted to act the same way. He planned to annually perform a requiem on the day of her death and ordered the composition anonymously through the Viennese lawyer Johann Nepomuk Sortschan. 

# 5 A performance in Mozart’s name was not originally planned

Thus, the work was originally not intended to be published under Mozart’s name.

Even if it’s not known, if and to what extent, there have been arrangements with the “anonymous client“, it is hard to imagine that Mozart started to compose randomly [1] – and consequently chose the setting of the orchestra totally independent from his client’s conception.

The first performance of the Requiem fragment in the memorial service for Mozart himself on December 10th, 1791 revealed the existence of the work to the public – but without considering the circumstances of the actual contract.

One year later, the work was again performed under Mozart’s name –  this time Gottfried van Swieten, a friend of the family, took the whole work into the program of a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow and her children (January 2nd, 1793).

Count Walsegg, the client, was really upset about the performances as well as about the subsequent publication at Breitkopf & Härtel, which was forced by Constanze in 1800. Nevertheless, he renounced to take legal action.

But what had become of the actual purpose of the piece? When did Count Walsegg himself perform the work?

Count Walsegg perfomed the work firstly on tDecember 14th, 1793 within a church service in the Neuklosterkirche in Vienna. Another performance conducted by Walsegg took place on the 14th February 1794 – this time for the actual purpose, to the memory of his deceased wife Anna.

# 6 The Requiem is based on Handel’s works

In 1825 a controversy arose over the authenticity of the Requiem again. Here, the answer of the Austrian composer and music historian Maximilian Stadler was of great importance. Stadler had helped at an editorial meeting in 1800 to work out, which parts of the “working score”, respectively the “delivery score” are actually written by Mozart. Thus, as a result of this meeting – because the legal facts and the authorship were clarified – a “Mozart Requiem“, as a unified work, could be released.

To defend Mozart against the allegations, Stadler referred to the meeting in 1800 and to the autographs, which were presented there:

I recently hold the originals in my hands twice and had looked through them accurately .

Furthermore, he unintentionally added another facet to the debate about plagiarism and authenticity by referring to Handel:

[Mozart made] the great Handel … to his pattern in serious singing matters.

With this quote he pointed to Handel’s “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline ” as a model for the Requiem’s first movement.

Looking at this from today’s perspective, it seems to be a completely unproblematic statement.

At that time, however, it was problematic. Jacob Gottfried Weber, who previously doubted the authenticity of the work sharply, now postulated with regards to the Requiem and especially to the Kyrie to be “Mozart’s sketches after Handel”. So it is obvious that Weber’s idea of original creation was very different from Mozart’s way of dealing freely with role models and influencers.

# 7 The Requiem became a “State Composition”

Through his German text for the Requiem, the composer and music critic Johann Adam Hiller formed the basis for the work to be performed in a secular environment – meaning: the concert hall.

As a result, by the beginning of the 19th century the Requiem became a formal “state composition” in German-speaking countries, and a little bit later even beyond that. Therefore, it was performed in 1803 at the impressive funeral of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock or later at the official funeral ceremonies for Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin and for many other well-known musicians.


Going back to the question from the beginning, “Why did the Mozart’s Requiem became so famous” , we have to state that there are many – quite different – reasons and factors that helped to build its popularity.
In the article above I listed 7 of them. The most striking fact is certainly that the Requiem was Mozart’s last composition. Furthermore, the work is unique in Mozart’s oeuvre, as it was fragmentally (Introitus and Kyrie) performed on his own funeral on the 10th of December, 1791. Another striking fact is that the Requiem was not only written by Mozart alone. Only half of the work was really written by him. As stated above, the rest of the piece is written by his students Eybler and Süßmayr. Additionally, the Requiem was a commissioned piece, ordered by an unknown client through a mysterious messenger. That is why, a performance under Mozart’s name was actually not planned.
What else helped to make the Requiem so popular? In any case, the Requiem’s popularity was increased through the huge controversy about the authenticity and the authorship of the piece and the fact that it was inspired by Handel’s “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline”.
Finally, the work became and remained famous, because at some point it became a so-called  “state composition” and was performed on the funeral most important composers of all times.

Are there other reasons you can image – maybe also inner-musical ones – why Mozart’s Requiem mass became so famous? Feel free to post them into the comment section!

Recommended Records (UK*):
1.) Herbert von Karajan – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1975
2.) Christian Thielemann – Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, 2006
3.) Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Concentus Musicus Wien&  Arnold Schoenberg Choir, 2004

Recommended Records (Germany*):
1.) Herbert von Karajan – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1975
2.) Christian Thielemann – Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, 2006
3.) Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Concentus Musicus Wien&  Arnold Schoenberg Choir, 2004

[1] Cohrs, Benjamin-Gunar (2013). Mozarts Requiem: 1. Ein unvollendetes Meisterwerk | MUSIK HEUTE. 
[2] Rochlitz, Friedrich (1798): Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.
[3] Niemetschek, Franz Xaver (1798): Leben des K.K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart
[4] Michael Levey (1971). The Life and Death of Mozart

Further reading:

*Affiliate Links

Written By

Author | Blogger | Classical Music Lover

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *