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From battles that make no sense and nobles acting like contemporary millennials to medieval clergymen and witch hunters who just make up the rules as they go and falsehoods that besmirch a real man’s reputation, regular readers of this blog will know that I often call out screenwriters and directors for some of the wild nonsense they make up when they could just tell the actual story. On the surface, you might think that Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman) deserves that treatment for its seemingly bizarre claim that Antonio Salieri anonymously commissioned Mozart’s Requiem Mass as part of a plot to murder him and steal the credit for his work. It seems so implausible that it has to have been invented by Peter Shaffer, the playwright whose play formed the basis for the script.

And yet, it’s almost true.


The Curious History of Mozart’s Requiem Mass

In 1791, Mozart was offered a commission to compose a Requiem Mass; he was paid half up front with the rest being promised on delivery of the finished work. The commission was done through intermediaries so that the commissioner could remain anonymous, but the man who commissioned it was Count Franz von Walzegg, a somewhat eccentric German aristocrat. Walsegg was an amateur musician and very enthusiastic about music; he maintained a group of musicians who performed for him and his friends twice a week. In addition to getting copies of new works of music as they came out, he also liked to anonymously commission works for composers and then pass them off at these private performances as his own work, often hand-copying the scores to add to the verisimilitude of the deception. He liked to challenge his friends to guess who had composed the work they had just heard; his friends, knowing the truth, would play along and be ‘amazed’ when Walsegg finally told them the work was his.

Count von Walsegg

Count von Walsegg

When Walsegg’s wife died in her late 20s, the count, himself only 28, decided to commission a Requiem from Mozart. There is some uncertainty about exactly who Walsegg sent to meet with Mozart; Walsegg told his attorney to arrange it, but the attorney probably sent one of his clerks. Mozart referred to his visitor as the Grey Messenger, because the man was dressed all in grey. It’s not clear whether Mozart understood that Walsegg was the ultimate commissioner or not; he may genuinely not have known whom the work was going to, or he may have simply played along with the ruse to humor his patron. Walsegg’s odd habit was apparently well-known in Viennese circles, so Mozart could certainly have guessed the man’s identity if he thought about it very much.

Mozart promised the Requiem would be completed in 3 months, but it was delayed twice, once by a trip to Prague and then after his return by the premiere of The Magic Flute. The Grey Messenger visited Mozart several times during this period, but Mozart was able to win an extension of an extra month. It was during this final month that Mozart began contemplating his own death and claiming he had been poisoned, at least if we are to believe his widow Constanze’s story about the Requiem. She claimed that he had begun to think that he was actually writing it for himself; as a result, she took the manuscript away from him for a few weeks, until his spirits lifted. This left him rather pressed for time, but then on November 20th, he fell ill. He continued working on the Requiem as long as he was able, but died before he could finish it.

Constanze was eager to see the work completed, because she was in tight financial straits. She permitted a public performance of the unfinished work just two weeks after her husband’s death. Then she arranged for one of Mozart’s close friends, Jacob Eybler, to finish it, but he returned the manuscript to her after only completing one section and adding 8 bars to another, possibly because he felt inadequate for the task. So she passed the manuscript to Franz Süssmayr, who was Mozart’s pupil and assistant but whom Mozart had considerable disdain for. Süssmayr, however, had been with Mozart on his last night, and so might have had known something of Mozart’s intentions for the incomplete portions of the work; he, Constanze, and her sister Sophie all later claimed that this was the case, and the completed work is far superior to anything else Süssmayr produced, so there is good reason for believing these claims. It was Süssmayr who completed the Requiem, although some scholars have detected the hand of other composers in sections of it.

Franz Süssmayr

Franz Süssmayr

At this point, Constanze demonstrated that she knew how to play the hand she had been dealt. She gave Walsegg a copy of the finished work (complete with a forged signature), claiming that it was entirely her husband’s work, and got her payment. Exactly how this exchange took place is unknown–did the Grey Messenger contact her, or did she by this point know that Walsegg was the commissioner and contact him? She insisted later that she had no knowledge of the commissioner’s identity, but she is not an entirely reliable witness and clearly lied about various aspects of the manuscript’s history at different points. Regardless of whether she knew of Walsegg’s involvement at this point, she was contacted by the Prussian ambassador, who offered to buy the work for King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. So she sold it to the Prussians for a very large sum of money, and then turned around and sold it to two other nobles, thus substantially easing her financial problems.

On January 2, 1793, the completed Requiem received its first public performance, in Vienna. It was clearly understood to be Mozart’s work; it was organized as a benefit for Frau Mozart. Antonio Salieri attended the rehearsals, and many of Mozart’s friends celebrated the performance. In December of that same year, Walsegg conducted a performance of the Requiem, claiming it was his, and he repeated this the following February, the anniversary of his wife’s death. But by this point, it was becoming known that the work was actually Mozart’s. To save himself from embarrassment, Walsegg falsely claimed that he had been a student of Mozart and had sent the work to Mozart for approval. He claimed that after Mozart died, Constanze had mistaken the work for one of her husband’s.

In 1799, as Constanze explored the possibility of publishing the Requiem with Mozart’s other works, she revealed to the potential publisher that Süssmayr had completed the work; this was the first public acknowledgement that Mozart was not the sole author. When Walsegg learned of the impending publication, he sent his attorney to confront Frau Mozart, pointing out that she had promised him the only copy of the manuscript and that legally it belonged to him. She lied and told him that the publication was happening from copies of the Requiem that she had no control over, and at that point Walsegg accepted the inevitable and abandoned all pretense of having written the work.

The web of secrecy, half-truths and lies that surrounded the Requiem’s composition and early performances allowed for the emergence of a set of myths around the work. A biography of Mozart issued in 1798 claimed that Mozart had been entirely unaware of the identity of the commissioner, that he fainted numerous times during the composition process, and that he had had forebodings of his own death during the process, among other stories. The same year, Constanze claimed that he had been working on the composition the day he died, that the Grey Messenger had arrived shortly after her husband’s death and claimed the manuscript, and that she never learned the identity of the commissioner. The details about the mysterious Grey Messenger and Mozart’s supposed foreknowledge of his death providing the materials for a wonderful ghost story that helped stir interest in the work.

By this point, rumors were already circulating blaming Salieri for Mozart’s death, although no one seems to have taken them very seriously. But the first person to connect Salieri to the mysterious Grey Messenger was Alexander Pushkin, in his 1831  story “Mozart and Salieri”, which Peter Shaffer subsequently adapted into Amadeus. What Pushkin and Shaffer did was simplify the story of the Requiem’s composition and build it into a more dramatically satisfying narrative by substituting the malevolent Salieri for the vain Walsegg and turning the Grey Messenger into the more ominous Black Messenger.

Obviously, involving Salieri in the story of the Requiem is a substantial deviation from the facts. But the fact that the Requiem Mass was anonymously commissioned by someone who wished to pass it off as his own work is true. It’s a good example of the cliché that historical fact is often more interesting than historical fiction, and one that I wish more screenwriters would try to follow.

Want to Know More

The complex history of the Requiem is related in detail here.

Amadeus (Director’s Cut)is available through Amazon, as is Mozart: Requiem, KV 626.

Robert Gutman’s biography Mozart: A Cultural Biography seeks to place Mozart in a wider context and is widely regarded as the definitive biography of the composer.