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What's in a Name - The Requiem

We’re getting ready to perform Mozart’s Requiem – again! How good is that! So good, in fact, that it merits a bit of a ‘plug’. By way of giving this Masterpiece of Mozart’s a bit of context, historically and musically, one’s appreciation, understanding and love of this timeless music can be expanded significantly.

So, what is a requiem? The word, which is of Middle English origin, comes from the Latin word ‘requies’, which means, literally, ‘rest.’ A requiem is, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘a Christian ceremony (ie, a mass) at which people honour and pray for a dead person.’ The ceremony, which originated in the Catholic Church, existed long before it became a musical form.

A Requiem Mass follows a basic structure, with variations at the composer’s or conductor’s discretion.

The general, but not exhaustive sequence is:

  • Introitus (or Introit) - literally, a short choral piece sung at the beginning of the Requiem – ie, an Introduction. It is from this beginning that the Requiem takes its name – “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” – which means “Give them eternal rest, O God.”

  • Kyrie eleison – “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” – “God have mercy, Christ have mercy”.

  • Sequenz -

  • Offertoire – traditionally sung during the taking up of the Offering during the service.

  • Sanctus – a hymn of praise to God – “Pleni sunt caeli et terra, gloria tua” – “Heaven and earth are full of your glory, O Lord of hosts”.

  • Pie Jesu – Pious Lord Jesus; a prayer to Jesus to grant everlasting rest.

  • Agnus Dei – Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, give them rest.

  • Libera me – Deliver me, O Lord from death eternal.

  • In Paradisum – Into Paradise. “May the angels lead you into Paradise”.

For many centuries the texts of the requiem were sung to Gregorian melodies. The Requiem by Johannes Ockeghem, written sometime in the latter half of the 15th century, is the earliest surviving polyphonic setting. Many, many composers have written Requiems, with many musical structures and arrangements. They may include some or all of the above texts, and they may include others not listed.

Some of the better known Requiems are by:

  • Brahms

  • Verdi

  • Faure

  • Saint-Saens

  • Stravinsky

  • Rutter

  • Lloyd-Webber’

And, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!

Unlike many composers of his time, Mozart was not particularly devout, and had completed very little church music. His only major religious work prior to the Requiem was his masterful Mass in C minor. He had been commissioned to write the Requiem by a Count Walsegg, who wanted a work that would be performed each year to commemorate the death of his wife. (But that is a whole other story!)

The work wasn’t completed at the time of Mozart’s untimely death in 1791, and, cutting another long and convoluted story short, his widow Constanze ultimately commissioned Franz Sussmayr, an occasional pupil of Mozart’s to finish the work and ready it for performance. It had its first airing in December 1793.

Here is a breakdown of the structure of Mozart’s Requiem, with indications of “who did what” as generally accepted.


  • Requiem aeternam - wholly composed by Mozart.

  • Kyrie - voices and bass by Mozart; most instruments by F. X. Freystädtler (another of Mozart’s pupils), but trumpets and drums by Süssmayr.


  • Dies irae (Day of wrath); Tuba mirum (Wondrous trumpet); Rex tremendae (Great King); Recordare (Remember); Confutatis (Silenced, confounded) - voices and bass, together with key details of orchestration (trombone solo in Tuba mirum, horns in Recordare, first violin in Confutatis) by Mozart; originally completed by Eybler, but redone by Süssmayr.

  • Lacrimosa (Day of tears and mourning) - first two measures of strings and six measures of voices and bass by Mozart; the rest by Süssmayr, who essentially extended Mozart's figures throughout.


  • Domine Jesu (Lord Jesus) - vocals and bass by Mozart; rest by Süssmayr.

  • Hostias (Offering) - same; Süssmayr follows Mozart's indication at the end of the Hostias score of a da capo repeat of the "quam olim Abrahae" fugue from the Domine Jesu.

Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus dei -

  • All by Süssmayr, but possibly based on sketches (since lost) or verbal directives by the dying Mozart.


  • Lux aeterna (Eternal light)- Süssmayr adapts Mozart's music from the Requiem aeternam.

  • Cum sanctus (With your saints) - Süssmayr repeats Mozart's music for the Kyrie fugue. *

From this summary you can see that, even though it was unfinished at Mozart’s passing, all that was subsequently added had Mozart’s stamp well and truly all over it. So it still totally merits identification as Mozart’s Requiem. And among the many aspects of the work that give it its fully deserved reputation as a masterpiece are these:

  • Although Mozart was allegedly not deeply religious, his understanding of the structure of the requiem mass, and the meaning and significance of each movement, was such that he still produced a deeply spiritual work that was wholly reverential of the gravity of its subject matter. It is recognised as an important sacred work, and is performed in churches to this day.

  • Mozart’s sheer musical genius enabled him to write music that evoked every human emotion, from deepest despair to highest hope. The moods of the music vary from great intensity to sublime tranquillity.

Whether one is a believer or not, this music is so powerful, so moving, and so beautiful, that it can speak to your soul and spirit at a deep level. It might not do so, but if you let it, it surely will.

* Quoted from “Classical Notes – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Requiem” by Peter Gutmann, 2006.


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