Mozart’s Requiem

At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall, overthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.

– John Donne

If there is a single reason to believe in God, it is Mozart. It’s not just that it’s hard to imagine that even an infinity of evolution could produce a single being so wondrous; it’s that Mozart’s music is so overpowering, so unimaginably beautiful that it demands an audience greater than the merely mortal. The human soul is too small and weak a container for the great flood of Mozart’s genius, to even attempt to hold on to the essence of his music is to try to contain the sea in a transparent flask. Humankind was not made to bear so much beauty.

The Requiem in D minor (K.626) is Mozart’s swan song, and one of the most glorious and heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. There are a few pieces, very few, that move me to tears each time I hear them – Mozart’s Requiem does more, it reduces me to a blubbering, bawling mass of pure emotion (if you don’t believe me, just read the rest of this post). If there is truly a music of the spheres, this is what it must sound like.

The Requiem opens quietly, drawing you slowly into a world of dark foreboding, the voices of the choir lingering like dark clouds on the horizon of the music. Then a soprano breaks through, pure as a sunbeam, and as the music soars you realise that this is no earthly endeavour, that the music you are about to hear belongs in some higher, more ethereal plane. There is a dark sense of peace here, a sort of fragile and restless stillness.

Into this calm the Kyrie arrives like a sudden quickening of the wind. This is an urgent and dramatic plea for God’s mercy, (so different, for instance, from the Kyrie in the C minor mass, K 427) but it is also a proud one. Mozart marries desperation to power here, laying open the beating heart of the life force, as if to say: Here is all our strength. Here is all our pride, all our youth, all that we are capable of. Take it, but grant us your mercy.

And then, just as you are beginning to feel the blood pounding in your veins, just as your body is beginning to throb with the music and you are starting to feel the exhileration pulsing through you, the gauntlet Mozart has thrown down is accepted and the Dies Irae comes crashing through the world. Here is an unleashing of all the savage power that Mozart can muster, an explosion of pure wrath (uncharacteristic for Mozart) that puts Beethoven to shame. As the great drums of Mozart’s anger blaze forth, you can literally feel the walls shattering around you, the chains breaking, the great engines of doom erupting in all their horrifying majesty. Forget Handel’s trumpets, forget odes to joy, if the day of judgement ever arrives, this is what it will sound like.

Who shall stand beside on this day? Who shall plead for us, and with what voice? In the resounding silence that the Dies Irae leaves in its wake, a lone trumpet swells in aching, lonely cadence, joined slowly by the frail, anxious voices of those who have survived the cataclysm. The Requiem is so beautiful that it is difficult to pick a favourite part of it, but if I had to pick one it would be this – the Tuba Mirum. This is the saddest, most lovely thing that Mozart ever wrote (well, okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not too much of one), a trembling paean, pregnant with memory and sorrow, that speaks forever for all our dead, all our injured, all our dispossessed and violated. All the world’s suffering is in those notes, all the helplessness of man faced with the indifference of nature and the cruelty of his fellow beings. The Tuba Mirum is the voice of eternal mourning, the immutable memory of those we have lost.

Safe in the knowledge of such prayer, the Rex Tremendae rises in glory again, but it is a softer, warmer glory, a sound made mellow by the absence of pride, a more humble rejoicing. That it should gently fade into a series of solo voices soaring in prayer seems natural – all is yearning and sweetness here, all is pleading and beautiful.

But mercy is not so easily gained. As the Confutatis arrives, the darker note of wrath returns, the strings are stern again, and the voices of the choir tumble into the darkness. But from the ashes of this sound a new note arises – cleaner, purer, paler – a quivering flame searching for the light. For a moment the confusion of the opening notes threatens to engulf it, but it gutters through, and as the music grows still again, begins to burn brighter.

It is now that we arrive, finally, at despair. As the Lachrimosa swells, I am reminded of Shakespeare – “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”. Here is pain made liquid, here is a desolation that would make the heavens weep. Listening to the choir sing, I can feel something screaming inside me, and I have to hold on to the music, to the purity of its sound, to keep from giving in.

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”. As the Offertorium opens, you can feel the music, having been humbled and reduced to its lowest point, beginning to gather strength again. This builds slowly, lingering lovingly over the voices of the soloists bathed in sudden hope, climaxing in a mighty prayer, a Hostias of sublime power.

From here on, everything is praise. The Sanctus fills the room with new promise, the sweetly singing Benedictus celebrates this frail sense of hope and the Agnus Dei is a final, almost triumphant prayer for peace, made in the virtual surety of deliverance, of gentleness.

In the end, the thin sunbeam of the contralto’s voice returns, its quavering song still bathed in sorrow; only the choir is no longer a cloudbank, but a wall of shining mirrors, reflecting and celebrating the human soul.

It is here, in this triumphant finale, that Mozart finally pours out his heart’s blood, finally gives us the true fire that he and he alone is capable of. Here is Mozart’s own plea for immortality, the sound of genius standing up to be counted. This is who I am, Mozart seems to say, this is what I can do. Here I come towards you, riding on wings of angels. How could you deny me a place in heaven? How can you deny me a place in your heart?

Let me put it another way. When I die, I don’t want any elaborate rituals, any fancy prayers, any mournful eulogies. I don’t want ceremonies or speeches. All I ask is that someone play Mozart’s Requiem over my dead body. It will be enough. It will be more than I deserve.


1. Post inspired by performance of Mozart’s Requiem I attended tonight. Not a very great performance, but with the Requiem even ordinary performances are immeasurably moving. It’s quite embarassing, sitting in the third row and trying not to let anyone know that you’re crying. My only consolation is that the soloists were crying too – it’s the first time I’ve seen someone cry through their own performance.

2. It’s interesting how Mozart’s incredible talent as an Opera composer serves him so well in the Requiem. The intertwining of the voices is flawless and fascinating here – the sheer unobtrusive richness of the multiple voices all joining into a single overwhelming sound. Brilliant.