Six weeks before he died Mozart was feeling great. He and his wife Constanze had both suffered bouts of illness that year. Their finances had been rocky –Austria’s war with Turkey had caused an exodus of aristocratic patrons from Vienna, and then the Emperor Joseph II had died, depriving Mozart of a great supporter – but things were looking up. In a letter to Constanze (who was taking a cure at a local spa) Mozart recounts how in a single day in October he played two games of billiards, sold his horse, drank some strong black coffee (with a pipe of good tobacco) and orchestrated the last movement of his Clarinet Concerto. He had written a huge amount of music since mid-1791. His last piano concerto ends with a finale whose theme is a song about the return of spring. He also wrote not one but two major operas. The Magic Flute was already a hit in its suburban Viennese theatre, and La clemenza di Tito had survived a first night audience of A-list philistines at the new Emperor’s coronation (as King of Bohemia) in Prague and was on its way to being one of Mozart’s most frequently performed works for the next few decades.

But there was some unfinished business. Back in July Mozart had been commissioned to write a setting of the Mass for the dead – a Requiem. The story of the commission has become folklore (and therefore unreliable): a mysterious figure arrives on Mozart’s doorstep with a large purse of gold, asks for a Requiem but insists that the identity of his patron remain a secret. That much is true, but contrary to the Amadeus story it had nothing to do with Antonio Salieri or Mozart’s dead father, and Mozart set it aside, not because of a premonition of his own death, but because he needed to meet the tight deadlines for the two operas. The patron was Count Walsegg who was in the habit of commissioning music, copying it out in his own handwriting and claiming it as his own. (No-one was ever fooled.) But the Count’s wife had died in February and he wanted to honour her with a Requiem. Mozart could easily have worked out Walsegg’s identity, though, as the orchestra was to include basset horns (a deeper-toned relative of the clarinet) and he almost certainly knew all the players of that rare instrument in Vienna.

The myth that Mozart worked feverishly but reluctantly on the Requiem contains only a grain of truth. Letters to Constanze show him in good spirits and enjoying working on church music again after a long break from the genre. During his final illness, which began in mid-November, Mozart almost certainly experienced kidney failure. The resulting toxicity may well account for the delusions that he had been poisoned and was writing the Requiem for himself. When Mozart died, Constanze realised that it had to be completed, secretly if possible, and at first approached the composer Joseph Eybler, whom Mozart had admired. Eybler claimed to find the work too taxing; after asking several composers Constanze gave the job to Mozart’s sometime student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. It is in Süssmayr’s version that the work is most often performed. But these circumstances and various people’s agendas have served to increase the confusion about who actually wrote what.

Having scrutinised the manuscript’s handwriting, paper, watermarks and ink, scholars are now generally agreed that Mozart only completed the first of the work’s eight sections, the Introit, in its full orchestration. Elsewhere, he wrote out the vocal parts with a figured bass –a line for cello and double bass with shorthand indications of the correct harmony – and occasionally added a few fragments of the orchestration. Assistants like Süssmayr filled in the orchestral parts of some of these sections, possibly under Mozart’s supervision. The consensus is that Mozart did not write any of the Sanctus or Benedictus movements and most scholars doubt that he wrote any of the Agnus Dei. In the Lacrimosa, a subsection that occurs just over halfway through the piece, the music breaks off after just eight bars. We don’t know, but it could be the last music Mozart wrote.

Some purists refuse to play any part of the Requiem that Mozart didn’t write – the late Georg Tintner, well known to Australian audiences, would simply stop after the eight bars of the Lacrimosa and move on to the next section. Christopher Hogwood’s 1984 recording omits the Sanctus and Benedictus but includes an Amen section and an Agnus Dei skilfully reconstructed by Richard Maunder, who has also judiciously amended the orchestration.

Last year I was approached, not by a shadowy stranger but by ABC Classic FM’s John Crawford, who commissioned me to make a new completion – in my own style, not Mozart’s –of the Requiem. Later this month the Bangalow Festival in northern NSW will see the premiere of the work with my newly-composed versions of the Lacrimosa, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. A broadcast of the concert in December will also include, interspersed throughout the work, four songs for children’s choir and organ setting poems by Australian writers – Chris Wallace Crabbe, Gwen Harwood, John Kinsella and Les Murray – which act as a commentary on the emotional and spiritual themes of the Requiem.

I think of the piece as an unfinished building, with me as the architect invited to complete it in a contemporary style but so that it can be used for its original purpose. Thus, while I was made no attempt to sound like Mozart, my additions are of similar durations to Süssmayr’s as they almost certainly represent what Mozart would have done. I have organised the harmonic aspect of the music to make transitions between me and Mozart seem tonally logical and of course I have used the wonderfully dark-hued palette of Mozart’s score with its basset horns and bassoons, trumpets and trombones, timpani and strings.

Eight bars into the Lacrimosa the music ceases to be Mozart’s and becomes mine, which I have underlined by inserting a purely instrumental bridge-passage to honour his passing. At the end of the movement the music ‘remembers’ Mozart’s for a moment, leading back to his settings of the fourth section.

The text of the Sanctus is from the Book of Revelation, where a voice like a trumpet is heard as a door opens in heaven, so I’ve composed it with an opening trumpet solo to balance the famous trombone solo in Mozart’s Tuba mirum section. The Benedictus is, like Süssmayr’s, for soloists and chorus, and as in many late eighteenth century masses is fairly spacious before a reprise of the Osanna.

The Agnus Dei aims to present the repeated petition for the repose of departed souls in varied ways, stressing different aspects of it and trying a variety of ways of asking for peace – quietly, assertively and so on. As Mozart intended, the music of work’s opening returns in the final movement, so I thought it appropriate to withdraw musically at the end of the Agnus Dei, which precedes it. The soprano solo provides a link between the movements, but the chorus and orchestra whisper their prayer for peace before Mozart returns for one last time.


Gordon Kerry lives on a hill in north-eastern Victoria.