Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Perform Mozart’s Final Masterpiece

Photo above: Lucas Alexander

One of the reasons Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626 is so intriguing, is that its entire conception is shrouded in mystery. 

One evening in July 1791, a masked man—an unknown ‘grey messenger’—appeared at Mozart’s door with a commission from an important figure for Mozart to compose a requiem mass to honor his late wife. We now know that the figure was Franz Anton Leitgeb—an envoy of Count Franz von Walzegg-Stuppach and an amateur musician who had a habit of commissioning music and passing it off as his own work in bi-weekly private performances at Schloss Stuppach. Like his other commissions, this one was guaranteed with the stipulation that the composer forgo any claims to the piece and not attempt to identify the commissioner. 

By late autumn, Mozart’s health was deteriorating, and he confessed to his wife, Constanze, that he felt that he was writing his own funeral mass. When he was feeling especially ill, he had delusions of having been poisoned. 

Mozart composed frenetically even as he lay dying with a high fever and painful swelling. On December 5, 1791, Mozart died at the age of 35 from what is now generally accepted as complications from kidney failure. His Requiem remained unfinished.

Mozart notoriously lived above his means, so it was imperative that his widow collect the remainder of the commissioning fee, which was only guaranteed upon completion of the Requiem. Constanze was eventually able to convince Mozart’s pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to finish it, which he did, re-writing the entire score in his own hand to contribute to the farce that Mozart had completed it before he died.  


Maestra JoAnn Falletta, one of the world’s most famous conductors and Music Director Laureate of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the Orchestra and Chorus in three local performances of Mozart’s final masterpiece on March 9, 10, and 12. 

Falletta describes the preparation for the concerts as “a very long process, and a lot of it—most of it—is spent alone. I’m in my room with the scores.” Despite having “a lot of notes to myself about things I’ve learned in past performances,” Falletta also approaches the preparation for each new concert “with fresh eyes, but also remembering things in the previous times that I’ve done it…. And I’m always left with a kind of amazement at these composers, every time I study the scores.” 

Falletta has a humble approach to conducting, and cites learning as “the best thing about my profession:” 

“I’m always on a road, discovering things, and the orchestra are the people who teach me that. We have to learn all our lives, and the only way we can learn is with the musicians: how they’re playing, how they’re interpreting things, how the sound changes, what tempos work for the ensemble. I have to learn that right away. I have to be listening, and I love that. And for me, I love the idea that every time I do a piece, it’s unique, because it’s that orchestra—and it should be. I don’t want to come in and say, ‘This is the way it should sound,’ or ‘this is the way I did it last month.’ No, I want them to inform it, I want it to be their voice. I want this to be the Virginia Symphony and the Virginia Symphony Chorus—their interpretation, their feeling at this moment in their lives, how we’re all feeling post-pandemic comes into it, and that makes it unique. This will never happen again, these particular performances. ”   

Falletta also praises her colleague, the “magnificent” Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorusmaster Robert Shoup for his preparation with the chorus. 


In preparing the Requiem, Maestra Falletta explains that Mozart was sure that it was the voice of God or the voice of death coming from him, so the [Requiem] has the feeling of the last words of Mozart—the last thoughts of Mozart—and is very beautiful. And Mozart was an extremely devout Catholic, so the concept of dying at the age of 35—he was very young—it was frightening to him, really frightening, because he would probably have been the first to admit that he hadn’t been very good all of his life. He’d done a lot of bad things, and he was frightened, so he had this sense that if this Requiem were very good, it could be kind of a gift he could offer, as you know, ‘I am sorry for everything else I did.’ This was mired in these intense emotions, so when we play that, we realize that. And the color of it is very dark. He doesn’t use the bright instruments in the orchestra, like flutes and oboes. He keeps it very dark: clarinets and basset horns at that time, and bassoons, and it’s somber and quite frightening in some parts of the Requiem mass, where the text is quite chilling…. Mozart’s [Requiem] is small: small scale, small orchestra, and shorter [compared to other requiems], but I think in a way, is most harrowing because it’s written by someone who was dying, and really believes this is the only way he could make amends for all the wrongs he’s done in the past. And I think it’s really quite something to live through and hear live.


Opening the program is Richard Strauss’s “Tod und Verklärung” (Death and Transfiguration). Completed nearly 100 years after Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece, the tone poem beautifully compliments the Requiem. Strauss’s tone poems were an interesting exploration of his personality, and “Tod und Verklärung” is no exception. As Falletta expounds:

“Strauss is a very different person [from Mozart], and Strauss is not dying!  Strauss is 25 years old, and… [his compositions] tell you a little bit about the personality of Richard Strauss. Every tone poem he wrote was about himself in some way: He was the hero in ‘A Hero’s Life’ [Ein Heldenleben], he was the lover in ‘Don Juan.’ He feels for these people. He was Don Quixote in ‘Don Quixote,’ so he’s imagining at 25 years old what it’s like to say ‘goodbye’ to life [in ‘Tod und Verklärung’], and it’s exquisite, because it starts out with a very old man who’s laying in bed, and he knows the end is near, and he’s struggling with pain, but he goes through different phases. And in this short piece, he goes through remembering his childhood, and remembering becoming of age, and the strength of that, and the hopefulness of that, the optimism. He remembers falling in love, and we hear all of these little vignettes in his life, and he remembers dedicating himself to music. This is about an artist—the death of an artist—so he dedicates himself to music, and music becomes his whole life. And then when he passes, we have these sections where he’s really struggling. It’s kind of a battle [as in] ‘I’m not ready yet,’ but death comes for him, and then there’s a transfiguration, when he goes to that wonderful place— whatever it is—Strauss definitely believed in it and he lets us see it. It’s one of the most beautiful endings in music, of course, because it’s like opening that door to what the next world is. So although Mozart has nothing like that in the [Requiem] Mass—he stuck with the Roman Catholic views—but Strauss tells the story of remembering your life, but then going to a place that none of us can really imagine, so I thought it fit together well, and it also gave me a chance to get all of the Virginia Symphony together so that I get to work with the brass and all the woodwinds and the harp and the percussion, and I’m really looking forward to that. 


The performances will be held during Lent, and it is Maestra Falletta’s hope that the audiences should feel a sense of comfort from the music. “With Mozart, it is like he goes beyond, too. He’s infinite in a way, really, because we’ll always love his music and so it’s not really a ‘goodbye…’ his next step was really to have a life forever in the music that we love all the time. And for Strauss, too, it was similar. But Strauss was able in the Romantic age to imagine an afterlife, and it’s interesting to see those two German composers writing with great intensity, and great feeling just a hundred years apart, and how German music developed, too. So I hope that people won’t feel this is a sad concert. It’s not. I mean, it’s a concert of great spirituality [during] Lent, but in the end a great hopefulness of what comes after. And I think we all need to think about that, and music hopefully releases us to dream in our own way.   

Thursday, March 9, 7:30 p.m.—Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
Friday, March 10, 7:30 p.m.—Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News
Sunday, March 12, 2:30 p.m. —Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach 


~Anastasia Pike, Ed.D.
Dr. Anastasia Pike is a performer, arts educator and writer, having received her doctorate from Columbia University, and master’s degrees from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University (major: harp; minor: piano), and the University of Maryland (musicology). She has an esteemed career as a concert harpist and is also an award-winning pianist. Pike serves on the faculties at Teachers College, Columbia University, the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, and James Madison University.  She founded and directs the Hampton Roads Harp Festival and Competition and also serves as President of the Washington, DC, chapter of the American Harp Society.


Conductor Itzhak Pearlman

Photos: David Polston